From restoring prairie to reclaiming identity, students serve to learn

As wind stirs the cattails and cicadas buzz, San Jacinto College students in work gloves and rubber boots shovel earth to make room for new prairie grasses at Sheldon Lake State Park.

Is your course service-learning?

1. Search for the course at

2. After you click on the course, drop-down information will appear.

3. If the course is SL, a symbol will appear beside the course number. Mouse over this for a message like “This class includes a 10-hour service-learning project.”

Sweat beads on foreheads under the September sun. Some students crack the dry ground with their shovels, while others schlepp water in kitty litter jugs from a trailer bed to the coastal prairie worksite. Slowly, foot-high switchgrass, eastern gamagrass, yellow Indian grass, and bluestem pop up beside their older siblings.

Some might call it old-fashioned hard work. But these smiling San Jacinto College North Campus Biology II students, working alongside professor Dr. Tyler Olivier and park rangers, call it service-learning (SL). Dr. Olivier peppers the work with discussion of monocots, plant reproduction, and urban benefits of prairie conservation. It’s learning in the field -- literally.

Skin in the game

Although San Jacinto College has offered service opportunities for many years, official SL classes first appeared in the course catalog in 2013. Students participate in at least 10 hours of service outside the classroom, engaging in projects that benefit the community and connect to the course’s objectives. Afterward, they reflect on how the experience impacted their learning.

Dr. Olivier, an SL campus liaison, calls SL a high-impact practice that not only builds character but also adds context to the coursework.

“I can tell you something all day, but until you get hands-on experience, you don’t really connect with the material,” he said.

A ‘community’ college

SL crosses all fields.

At Central Campus this fall, Dr. Judy Maima, professor of child development and education, offered SL opportunities in Pasadena Independent School District in her Introduction to Teaching Profession and Introduction to Special Populations courses. For two hours each week, future teachers tutored younger students in reading and writing or assisted with educational and extracurricular activities at elementary schools through Pasadena ISD’s Helping One Student To Succeed (HOSTS) and Texas ACE programs.

In the Cooperative Education - Legal Assistant/Paralegal SL course, North Campus students volunteered for the Make It Right event hosted by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and Beacon Law this fall. According to legal assistant program director Jeanette Liberty, students helped generate hundreds of cases and prepare legal documents so Houston residents could have warrants vacated, driver’s licenses restored, and criminal records expunged or sealed.

Thanks to the event, these individuals could mend mistakes to provide a better future for their families.

“San Jac is not just about providing quality education at a low cost,” Liberty said. “We also give back to our community and produce graduates who understand the importance of helping others. The College isn’t just located in the community -- it’s an important part of the community.”

Multi-faceted badge

At Central Campus this fall, criminal justice students in Traffic Law and Investigation analyzed different traffic problem areas around campus. Criminal justice professor John White arranged the project with the San Jacinto College Police Department so students could learn how to define the problem, gather information, and determine solutions.

White wanted students to see that improving traffic is not just about (1) enforcing law but also about (2) educating the public and (3) engineering solutions. At the end of the course, students presented their findings to police and recommended one or more of these three E’s.

Throughout the semester, Ray Bush and a teammate observed school bus pick-up and drop-off on Central Campus’ Cunningham Drive to identify whether drivers were illegally passing stopped buses -- a complaint police had received. While they didn’t see anyone passing the buses, they witnessed another issue: drivers behind the buses sometimes speeding as they cut through a neighboring parking lot to avoid waiting.

“On the engineering side, we’d prefer the ‘no passing’ signs that already exist to have blinking lights that make people visually want to look,” Bush said. “Also, have a patrol unit stationed in the parking lot to make people slow down, not think, ‘How fast can I get home?’”

The SL class freed police to focus on campus safety while students helped identify problems. Bush also appreciates traffic officers more, realizing their public presence is more often about collecting data to adjust speed limits and improve flow than about writing tickets. This is the professor’s goal. A former police traffic sergeant, White wants to prepare students for service-oriented policing and remove some of the profession’s stereotypes.

“We’re not just crime fighters but problem solvers. My chief used to say, ‘The moment the badge becomes about you, you’ve gone wrong,’” he said.

A tactile textbook

Whether restoring a natural habitat, mentoring younger students, clearing a record, or improving traffic, San Jacinto College SL students go beyond the classroom not only to learn and build their resume but also to change their communities.

For instructors, SL is a chance to engage students in a larger purpose.

“The world is bigger than the side of town they grew up in,” Dr. Olivier said. “Students get to do something they never thought they could do.”

For students, it’s a chance to close the textbook and live the course material.

“If you have a choice of sitting in a classroom or getting out and doing something, get out!” Bush said.


About San Jacinto College

Surrounded by monuments of history, industries, and maritime enterprises of today, and the space age of tomorrow, San Jacinto College has served the citizens of East Harris County, Texas, since 1961. The College is fiscally sound, holding bond ratings of AA and Aa2 by Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. San Jacinto College is a 2019 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence Top 10 institution, a 2017 Aspen Prize Rising Star Award recipient, and an Achieving the Dream Leader College. The College serves approximately 45,000 credit and non-credit students annually, and offers eight areas of study that put students on a path to transfer to four-year institutions or enter the workforce. San Jacinto College’s impact on the region totals $1.3 billion in added income, which supports 13,044 jobs.

For more information about San Jacinto College call 281-998-6150, visit or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.