The Student Ambassador Leadership Model: FWS and Service-Learning at Miami Dade College

Miami Dade College (MDC) is the largest institution of higher education in the United States, with more than 160,000 students taking classes at the college annually. In order to manage a large service-learning program at a large institution, MDC created a Student Ambassador program that includes 15-20 Federal Work-Study students. The Ambassadors support faculty who integrate service-learning into academic courses by communicating with other students and community partners. This article shares steps to use in establishing a similar program.
Miami Dade College

Katia Archer – Student Ambassador
Yleinia Galeano – Student Ambassador
Ossie Hanauer – Center for Community Involvement Campus Director
Nicolle Hickey – Student Ambassador
Michelle Lasanta – Student Ambassador
Josh Young – Center for Community Involvement College-wide Director
Overview of Service-Learning at MDC

MDC is a large urban community college spanning all of Miami-Dade County. With six campuses and several outreach centers, MDC is the largest institution of higher education in the United States, with more than 160,000 students taking classes at the college annually. The MDC Center for Community Involvement (CCI) was created in 1994 to strategically utilize the college’s resources — faculty, staff, students, physical infrastructure, and institution — for MDC to address the needs of our south Florida community.

We believe a fundamental role of the educational experience at MDC should be to prepare students for a life of informed, engaged citizenship. We want our graduates to have the skills, behaviors, attitudes, and knowledge that good citizens need — things such as a commitment to service; an understanding of the problems in our community and the mechanisms to bring about change; listening skills; critical thinking; an understanding of the delicate balance between rights and responsibilities; and a commitment to the common good.

CCI’s mission is to promote an ethic of service and citizenship and to help our institution become an increasingly engaged campus. This is achieved through a college-wide infrastructure that includes three fully staffed, comprehensive centers that coordinate service-learning, the Federal Work-Study America Reads program, and numerous other campus-community partnership projects. Since 1994, more than 200 faculty have combined academic study with course-relevant service projects. More than 4,000 students participate in service-learning annually, contributing in excess of 90,000 hours of service.

MDC is considered one of the nation’s largest and most respected service-learning programs. A key to our success is the many students who play a leadership role in our program. Two of the biggest challenges we face in creating and sustaining service-learning at MDC are 1) the size of our college, and 2) the labor-intensive nature of coordinating a large service-learning program.
Evolution of the Student Ambassador Model

The way we have been able to manage a college-wide program in light of such daunting challenges is through the Student Ambassador program. Every semester we have a corps of approximately 15-20 Student Ambassadors working college-wide to administer and lead our service-learning program. We could not run the program without Student Ambassadors.

The Student Ambassador program at Miami Dade College was started in 1995 by the Center for Community Involvement in response to a growing workload as more faculty became involved in the program. It was also a way to provide more opportunities for student leadership and growth.

Initially the Ambassadors were a handful of student volunteers on one campus who were asked to spend three to five hours a week helping coordinate the service-learning program. We also used part-time FWS student assistants to handle all of the office work — data entry, filing, office coverage, preparing letters, helping students who came to the office, etc. Volunteer Student Ambassadors took on more complex leadership projects such as delivering class presentations, calling community partners and students, and communicating with faculty.

As our program expanded to six campuses and our corps of FWS student coordinators grew to more than 15, we decided that rather than focus on leadership development with a handful of volunteer ambassadors who put in a few hours a week, we should and could help our FWS student workers become effective, dynamic, committed service-learning Student Ambassadors who each put in more than 15 hours as paid employees in our offices every week.
Duties of Student Ambassadors

Student ambassadors spend 15-25 hours a week (paid by the community service FWS program) helping coordinate service-learning and campus-community partnership activities. When someone calls or visits any of our campus Centers for Community Involvement, he or she will be greeted and assisted by a Student Ambassador. The Ambassadors are the face and the backbone of our program.
Supporting Service-Learning Faculty

Each Ambassador is assigned approximately six service-learning faculty members for whom they are responsible during the semester. Ambassadors meet with their faculty members, review their plans for using service-learning and the assistance they will need, and help make initial presentations and follow-up visits to the classes. They handle questions from students about community opportunities and help counsel them to find the most appropriate placement. Ambassadors also contact community partners to check the status of the service-learners.

Ambassadors create a file for each class with the class roster inside, keep track of applications and placement confirmations from that class, enter all the information into the program’s Access database, and send the faculty member regular status reports regarding who has turned in service-learning applications and confirmations. These reports include the results of the students’ end-of-term satisfaction questionnaires and transcribed comments from both the student and agency supervisor evaluations. These reports are appreciated by the faculty and usually become part of their portfolio and annual performance review.
Communication with Other Students

Communication between students in service-learning classes and Student Ambassadors is very important. Ambassadors make follow-up calls to fill in gaps for students who are missing information on their applications, to clarify information about their service placement, and to ensure that students complete their service-learning project. Ambassadors also help identify and solve problems that students may encounter with their placement and prepare mid-term and end-of-term thank you letters. When a negative evaluation comes in from either a student or a community agency, the Ambassador often calls the student to investigate what went wrong. Ambassadors create certificates for each student and make sure their faculty receive them in time to distribute them in class.

The Ambassador-managed Access database is invaluable for organizing and retrieving information efficiently. For example, when a student has not received a certificate of completion for the service-learning project or has any questions about her/his paperwork, Access allows the Student Ambassador to find the class the student did the service-learning for, the community partner the student served with, and the number of hours completed. The Ambassadors handle the entire process of operating the database and maintaining records on each class and each student.
Workshops and Events for Program Stakeholders

Ambassadors help organize community partner workshops twice a year to train agencies interested in becoming an approved service-learning placement site. The Ambassadors participate in the workshop and do a formal presentation on the student perspective and what agencies should keep in mind when working with service-learners. Ambassadors also play a key role in organizing a service-learning celebration every semester to recognize students, faculty, and community partners. It is an invaluable opportunity for reflection on behalf of the participants because everyone sees and hears firsthand to see how everything comes together to make a difference in the community and in the lives of the students.
Benefits of Being a Student Ambassador

In appreciation for their efforts, and in addition to their regular FWS pay, each Ambassador receives a polo shirt with the Student Ambassador logo (which they wear to class presentations and program functions), a $250 stipend each semester, recognition, and letters of recommendation for their portfolios. Their pictures are prominently displayed in the service-learning office.

Equally important and rewarding is the personal, professional, and academic growth the students achieve through their participation in the Ambassador program. MDC Student Ambassadors have been nominated for numerous national, state, and local awards, have received scholarships to four-year institutions, have gotten jobs as a direct result of their leadership in our program, and have blossomed as more confident, engaged students, citizens, and leaders.

Below are comments from MDC Student Ambassadors about their experiences with the program.

“This program has had a wonderful impact on my life. I have gained many valuable technical and communication skills as well as a clearer understanding of responsibility. Most importantly, I have gained friendships with a unique group of dedicated and hardworking individuals who have helped shape my view of a leader.” Yleinia Galeano

“I’ve always thought that school prepared you to claim a place in society and in your community. How can you claim that position if you cannot interact with your community? That is what being a Student Ambassador has exemplified for meÑthe ability to communicate and the importance of human relations.” Michelle Lasanta

“Being a Student Ambassador allowed me to grow as an individual. It was a fulfilling experience because I was able to help both faculty members and students become more involved in the community through service-learning.” Katia Archer

Suggestions for Replicating the Service-Learning Student Ambassador Program

Following are some recommendations drawn from our experience in administering the Student Ambassador program:

1. Create a “Service-Learning Advisory Committee” with faculty, community partners, key administrators, and students.
2. Meet with your Financial Aid representatives and find out where your institution is directing the 7% mandated for community service Federal Work-Study (CSFWS). Make the case that one or more CSFWS positions should be assigned to help coordinate service-learning. If you encounter opposition, make your case by emphasizing the benefits to students, the institution, the community, and the growth and sustainability of service-learning on campus. If your college is genuinely committed to this work, it will find a way to assign some FWS students to the endeavor. If you cannot make headway with Financial Aid, you may have to secure support and involvement from the deans or the president.
3. Create a job description for the Student Ambassadors (sample available on MDC’s website).
4. Plan a comprehensive orientation and leadership development program for your Student Ambassadors.
5. Seek opportunities to empower your Student Ambassadors to take as much leadership in your service-learning program as possible.
6. Utilize the Student Ambassadors to the greatest extent possible as spokespeople for your program and as examples of what is possible through service-learning.

Conclusion

Without the leadership and contributions of the Ambassadors, MDC’s service-learning program would be drastically smaller, less effective, and quite possibly unsustainable. How can all institutions create the next generation of leaders who will fully embrace service-learning as an even more accepted and widespread pedagogy, and who will ensure that our entire education system embraces the concepts and goals of service-learning? How can we graduate students with strong civic skills and a commitment to civic engagement?

Based on our experience, we believe that an important first step is to explore the possibility of creating a service-learning Student Ambassador program. More detailed information — including forms, applications, and a job description — may be found on Miami Dade College’s Center for Community Involvement website. We will enthusiastically share what we have in the hopes that you will use it and improve upon what we have done.

[Note: This article is excerpted and adapted from Archer, K., Galeano, Y., Hanauer, O., Hickey, N., Lasanta, M., & Young, J. (2006). Miami Dade College: The student ambassador model. In Zlotkowski, E., Longo, N., & Williams, J. (Eds.). Students as Colleagues: Expanding the Circle of Service-Learning Leadership. Providence, RI: Campus Compact.]

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