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Undergraduate students who participated in sustained community service through the Fitz Center for Leadership in Community were volunteer informants in a qualitative exploration of the meaning they make from being engaged in the Dayton community. The research team (five women and four men who were professor and eight doctoral students in educational leadership) were generously granted access to students associated with the Fitz Center. We were drawn to study “students who serve” because of our interest in student sub-cultures as well as the center’s model of sustained community engagement. Fourteen students were interviewed on or near campus. Unstructured open-ended interviews (Spradley, 1979) were approximately 30-45 minutes in length. The team adopted what Saldana (2009) calls structural coding from the work of MacQueen, McLellan-Lemal, Bartholow, & Milstein (2008). Based on the purpose of the study, a three-part structure to coding was designed: the background of students who serve, students’ experiences in service, and the meaning they constructed. “Meaning” was our goal, i.e., how students made meaning from community engagement and the nature of that meaning. Preliminary findings suggest that the students had background experiences with service, many of which derived from their Catholic high schools. They experienced service at diverse sites in the Dayton community, playing multiple roles (from tutor, to explorer, to leader, to fundraiser). Their experiences challenged their schedules, and their attempts to achieve a sense of balance in managing time. In their voices we heard the centrality of relationships as the core meaning of their experiences. Their community engagement expanded not only their knowledge and thinking, but also their struggles with understanding diversity and the roots of social injustice. Sustained engagement in the city deeply influenced what many students envisioned as their potential life’s work.

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Carolyn Ridenour

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Educational Leadership


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