How do you make a difference in the life of a four-year-old you just met? Thanks to Psychology's Project Outreach, more undergraduates now know how to do just that. Project Outreach (Psych 211) is the oldest (founded in 1969) and largest (500 students each year) service-learning course on U-M’s campus. It places students in settings such as preschools to gain firsthand experience interacting with people in need. After volunteering each week, students work in teams to integrate their experiences with academic knowledge from lectures and readings on early childhood development.
Washtenaw Promise, a non-profit organization, places Outreach students at Beatty Early Learning Center in Ypsilanti. Director Tim Wilson describes their role: “The success of our preschool mentoring program is a direct result of the dedicated Outreach students who create lasting and meaningful relationships with preschool children at Beatty. The volunteers help young children feel welcome at school as they are seen, valued, and recognized for who they are. The positive, warm, trusting relationships developed with mentors give preschoolers strong support for learning, social development, and emotional growth, with life-changing and far-reaching impact.”
The partnership with Washtenaw Promise has been a major win for both Project Outreach and for local children, and the popular early childhood course section has doubled to enroll 100 students per term. However, placing increasing numbers of Outreach volunteers into high-need preschools has brought additional challenges. Transportation has been the biggest stumbling block to further expansion, with some high-need schools an hour-long bus ride (but only 15 minutes by car) away. Psychology provides loaner cars, but fewer students have licenses, and carpools fail whenever an assigned driver is unavailable. Additional funding to cover emergency ride-sharing costs (about $40 per site visit) would add to flexibility in getting so many students to sites each week.
The benefits of mentoring flow both ways, with thousands of undergraduates achieving their own developmental milestones; as one student wrote, "I was able to interact with people from backgrounds different from mine, and I became much more aware of my own biases and developed a greater appreciation for diversity." Another reflected, "I was going through a lot during the semester, but helping others actually made me leave the preschool each week feeling better than when I came in." Students also improve their “soft” skills in working with others, experiencing "drastic improvement through constant communication with new people in novel situations."
Service-learning experiences can also lead students toward lifelong volunteering. As one Outreach student concluded, "I will take with me the lesson that no act of kindness is too small."
If you would like to support Project Outreach, please visit their giving page