Service Learning and Tech Comm: Mending the Disconnect Between ECU and Greenville

When thinking about today’s class and Dr. Beckerman asking the question “What is ECU”, I couldn’t help but agree with Juliana in her statement that the institution and the community are inextricably linked. In chapter 5, Britt states that “Technical communication is the means by which institutions define themselves and conduct their cultural work” (148). One of the connections I made here is the culture of East Carolina itself. East Carolina University prides itself as an institution dedicated to giving back to the community. One way that students become what many like to call ‘better citizens’ is by performing public service (also known as service work). The relationship that ECU has with service work within the surrounding communities (and especially within Greenville) highly reflects the mission constructed by those who established and gave meaning to the institution. From the mission statement of the school itself to how we implement ideas of giving back into the minds of the student population, East Carolina is defined as being a college dedicated to serving others.

“To be a national model for student success, public service and regional transformation, East Carolina University…” (Note: I got this from the ECU Website. J)

I have always been extremely interested in the relationship between ECU and Greenville, and the above excerpt from ECU’s mission statement is written in a way that communicates a sense of privilege amongst students and faculty. One of the reasons I have mentioned the mission statement and the culture surrounding ECU is because I am concerned with how East Carolina communicates this message to those outside of its institution. Here, I am specifically referring to those who are amongst some of the surrounding communities that we are so adamant on assisting.

In what ways does ECU culture communicate itself through writing and practice, and what kind of meaning is taken from it?

I would like to begin by discussing how our mission statement communicates to outsiders just how much we are set on building well-rounded students. The idea is that we can potentially better the world based on the fact that these well-educated students are enabled – with their education, of course – to go out and make change; however, the way in which we embody being a part of ECU culture and this institution as a whole can be detrimental in 1) how ECU is perceived amongst locals and 2) how students interact with different publics. This notion comes directly from the student service learning programs that we implement and the constant placement/withdrawal of students in these programs within the community.

Figures concerning the demographics of Greenville, NC residents shows that approximately 56% of Greenville is Caucasian (37% is African American) while the rest of the population is comprised of resident with a diverse set of ethnic backgrounds (website link is found at the end of this post). I suspect that the only reason the population is this way is because of ECU, being that it is a predominately white institution AND causes the influx of students. Because ECU is in Greenville, the town is expected to fulfill the standards of the institution. Here is where we can potentially find a problem: students who are constantly put in the position of helping the community puts the community itself in a place where the marginalized are expected to receive help but are then suddenly put at a disadvantage when the students who assist them move on. To provide these communities with aid that is inconsistent sends a message to the general public that ECU is more concerned with upholding its image than it is with the residents and natives of Greenville (excluding those associated with the university).

What I’m getting at here is (I hope I haven’t been rambling) that I wonder about how the culture, goals, and mission of our institution can be revised to omit that sense of privilege which comes along with acts of service learning. In chapter 8, Henry (when speaking of re-writing workplace culture) basically says that in order to revise workplace cultures we need to first review and make changes to administrative structures (214). Seeing that the provided scenario is quite similar to that of a workplace culture, I wonder about how we as technical communicators can begin to mend this disconnect between ECU and Greenville. We send students out into these communities (or in most cases, areas considered to be the ‘other side of the tracks’) to help ‘better’ them, but many of these students have not been trained to be sensitive to the needs and circumstances of others nor will they ever do work in these environments once they leave here. As someone who came to ECU on scholarship and completed countless hours of service to a number of different organizations, I have seen firsthand that although the organizations appreciate the help that our students provide it can sometimes be frustrating to have to constantly switch out employees, volunteers, etc. AND deal with the large number of personalities that come along with these individuals. The services that we provide sometimes feel selfish in a sense that they are regarded as nothing more than ‘jobs’ and ‘tasks’ when most times they are realities to individuals within surround communities.

How can we change ECU’s mission, culture, and (overall) institution to be more accommodating to its surrounds in terms of cultural work?

Demographic Link: http://www.areavibes.com/greenville-nc/demographics/

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