For the past five years, Rocío Melissa Rivera has helped students find ways to make a positive impact in the Columbia community through service learning. Rivera, an associate professor in the Division of Animal Sciences, teaches Animal Science 2140: Companion Animals, a course dedicated to teaching students about companion animals such as cats, dogs and horses.
The course is one of numerous service learning opportunities across the University of Missouri campus that students can participate in. Students in this specific course pick a local organization that features companion animals, such as the Central Missouri Humane Society or the Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center.
“When I first took over the course, I didn’t really know much about service learning and what it entailed,” Rivera said. “I decided to jump in and learn what I could through the students and through their experiences.”
Rivera met with each of her students at the beginning of the semester to see why each student wanted to take the course and why they picked the specific organization with which they intended to volunteer.
“The students who take this course all have a love for dogs, cats and horses,” Rivera said. “They love animals, and they were excited to play with fluffy puppies.”
After the semester was completed, Rivera met with all of the students again. While the students all had something in common before the course began, Rivera found they all had similar feelings afterward as well.
“Their responses were really incredible,” Rivera said. “They went into the class thinking that playing with puppies and kittens would be the best part of volunteering. They all learned that the best part of service learning was their interactions with the people they served. The personal growth that I saw then, and continue to see now, is incredible. I continue to meet with each service learning student at the beginning and the end of the semester and always get the same responses.”
Service learning is a key part of the RISE Initiative, part of the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) Strategic Plan. The plan states that all CAFNR undergraduate students will take part in at least one signature experience while on campus: Research, International, Service Learning and Experiential Learning.
“Service learning includes courses that have a recognized and structured service-learning component,” said Laura Friedrich, student services coordinator for the CAFNR Office of Academic Programs. “Service learning is defined by campus as experience-based learning that promotes lifelong commitment to social responsibility and public service. Mizzou has an Office of Service Learning that students can utilize, and there are some CAFNR courses designated as service learning.”
Rivera said she works with the Office of Service Learning closely for the course. Students are required to complete at least 20 volunteer hours. The partners that students work with write an evaluation that is sent directly to the office. Students who complete 35 hours of service get a service learning designation on their transcript.
“As a college student, you’re in a bubble at times,” Rivera said. “There are some real-life experiences and situations that students aren’t always aware of. There’s absolutely nothing that prepares you for those situations outside of being involved in them. That’s why service learning is so vital. It opens the door for students to make a difference and gain a deeper appreciation for those interactions.
“I’m a huge advocate for service learning. It’s an incredibly important part of the student experience.”
Friedrich added that service learning in CAFNR happens outside of the classroom, too, through clubs and organizations.
“Most of us want to do good in the world and have a positive impact on our communities through helping others,” Friedrich said. “You might be enrolled in a companion animals course where you learn how animals are used to assist others, or in a parks, recreation and sport course where you consider the various ways individuals interact with our parks and find ways to make these areas accessible to all.
“Service learning requires students to think about others beyond themselves and consider the needs of others. In our classes and through extracurricular activities, students continue to find ways to serve and to make our communities stronger.”