Research Service Learning
History of RSL in the Hart Leadership Program
Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Matthew Reisman was a pioneer of research service learning at Duke. In 1998, as a rising junior, Reisman traveled to Croatia as part of the Refugee Action Project (RAP), a group of students who wanted to serve communities facing a range of complex problems connected to their forced displacement and resettlement in Eastern Europe. These students sought opportunities to engage with people from other backgrounds and cultures to gain a better understanding of our increasingly complicated and interdependent world. While there, Reisman conducted a survey of resettlement needs of returning refugees.
Based on his experience working directly with communities, Reisman was determined to apply the research skills he was developing through his studies to the problems he saw on the ground with the refugee population he served. With input and guidance from the faculty and staff of Service Opportunities in Leadership (SOL), Matt designed what would become the program’s first Research Service-Learning (RSL) project. From the start, SOL has been a student-driven initiative that embraced innovative ways of engaging in problem solving work, both in the classroom and in communities.
In the summer of 1999, Reisman completed a second SOL internship working with refugees, but this time in a setting closer to home. Through the Self-Help Credit Union in Charlotte, North Carolina, Reisman helped research and design a new microenterprise development program for Charlotte’s diverse refugee communities. With guidance from his host organization, Reisman approached the project guided by the guiding principles of RSL: community-rootedness, collaboration, reflection, and concreteness. Reisman’s description of how he went about his RSL project illustrates the steps involved in designing, implementing and completing a research project, and it still serves as a useful introduction to the process.
During his senior year, Reisman offered to help create training materials about RSL for other SOL students, and for one year he served as the Hart Leadership Program’s RSL coordinator. In July 2000, he traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, to help seven SOL interns evaluate the progress of their community-based research projects, and to help them plan how to use their remaining time as effectively as possible.
Reisman’s experiences illlustrate how RSL can be a naturally iterative process. When students try community-based research, they often want to continue, and to deepen the learning process with progressively more ambitious projects down the road. As he wrote at the conclusion of his time in South Africa, Reisman said that his grasp of the problems facing the communities he served was enhanced by each successive RSL project.
“As the end of my time in Cape Town approached, I found leaving an unwelcome prospect,” he recalled. “The interns and the members of the Philippi community had not treated me as an interloper; rather, they had welcomed me as a partner in the community building work they were carrying out together. I sensed myself immersed in a joyous energy - the energy of creating, of building, and of believing. Having only begun to taste it, I could hardly stand to leave it behind.”
The following year, Resiman returned to Africa as a Fulbright Fellow, where he conducted research on the effects of the conflict in Cote d’Ivoire on village communities in neighboring Mali. Reisman worked in close collaboration with two NGOs, Save the Children and CARE. “RSL provided the framework for my research in Mali,” Reisman says. “The interview methods that I used in my investigation, the principles of community engagement I followed, and the partnership I cultivated with my host organization were all outgrowths of my RSL experience.”
Since Reisman’s burgeoning interest in designing Research Service Learning opportunities for himself and his peers, RSL has become an increasingly integral component of the undergraduate experience in the Sanford School of Public Policy and across the Duke campus. (Duke’s RSL efforts are part of a national educational movement that spans K-12 and higher education.) In collaboration with host organizations, and with mentorship from faculty supervisors, students conduct community-based research that enhances their academic training and interests, while introducing them to the systemic nature of problems facing communities. In addition to generating a tangible research product for their organization, RSL requires students to examine their own capacity for leadership as individuals, within organizations, and as citizens of the world.
The success of a community-based research project hinges on several key factors:
- The strength of the collaborative partnership between the student and the community partner. Regardless of past experiences, SOL students and Hart Fellows are continuously tested when they go out into the field. They must establish trust within an organization that is often stretched beyond capacity. Learning to negotiate personalities and politics is not only an important (and lifelong) leadership exercise, but essential for moving the research forward.
- Becoming fully immersed in the experience. Our participants are drawn to RSL as a way to explore issues that interest them. But we warn students not to finalize a research question until they have had time to understand the day-to-day concerns of their community partner organizations. Otherwise, there is a risk that the project may address a question the students deems important, but that is of little practical use to the community partner.
- Our RSL pedagogy includes pre-departure research methods training. Policy scholars and staff from Duke’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) teach students about a range of topics, from the principles of survey design, to analyzing and synthesizing data, to the legal and ethical issues involved with research.
RSL is central to both the SOL and Hart Fellows programs. Since 1999, hundreds of students have completed community-based research projects for a wide range of partner organizations.
Laurie Ball arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the summer of 2005 to work as a Hart Fellow with Mozaik Foundation, a non-governmental organization dedicated to building social cohesion across ethnic, social and economic divides in Eastern Europe. Laurie’s RSL project, “Building Social Cohesion in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” explores the reasons why people chose to participate (or chose not to participate) in community activities in their local village or city.
While this question might sound straightforward, the process of gathering and analyzing data was anything but. Laurie’s affiliation with Mozaik helped her establish credibility and contacts within communities, but it was the test of her skills as a researcher to develop trust with the people she interviewed, adhere to Duke and U.S. federal government guidelines for working with human subjects, and constantly recalibrate her hypotheses and assumptions as she delved deeper into her project. During the course of her 10-month Fellowship, Laurie lived in three distinctly different communities, and interviewed dozens of community residents—including war widows, concentration camp survivors, and staunch defenders of Slobodan Milosevic and other war criminals.
Laurie’s final research project provides a complex and nuanced view into specific communities, and provides valuable data and analysis of what factors can help Mozaik in its mission. At the conclusion of her fellowship, Laurie was invited to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina for another year as a Mozaik staff member. When she returned to the U.S. she enrolled in Yale Law School, and planned to pursue a career in international human rights. Learn more about Laurie’s research.
Adam Yoffie joined the SOL program in the spring of 2004 as a junior political science major. His previous service projects had included launching a gun control initiative in his high school, and working as a counselor at an HIV/AIDS clinic. In SOL, we sent Adam to Cape Town to work with Gun Free South Africa for his summer internship. For his community-based research project, “iGUNiFLOP Feasibility Study,” Adam helped design a plan to educate township youth about South Africa’s new firearms control act.
For Adam, the experience was a pivotal moment in his own understanding of how difficult it is to turn research recommendations into effective policy. “The greatest difference about this research is that it is not just my own private project,” Adam observed. “Before this I had volunteered and organized community events but never really sought to produce a well-researched product for anyone besides a professor. This was no longer about a grade but about actually helping individuals in need.” Learn more about Adam’s RSL project.
Adam returned in the summer of 2005 for a second SOL internship to build on his earlier experiences. Working with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, Adam’s conducted extensive legal and literature reviews, as well as in-depth interviews with political and community leaders working on both sides of the North Carolina Death Penalty Moratorium Campaign. Adam’s work exemplifies the cumulative effect of conducting sequential RSL projects; by his own admission, he had become a nimble researcher, while also learning to appreciate the ethical and political complexities involved with conducting a community-based research project.
In his senior year at Duke, Adam applied for a Fulbright Fellowship. On the strength of Adam’s transcripts and impressive record of service, he was already a strong applicant, but the emphasis he and his faculty recommenders placed on his RSL projects provided clear evidence of his leadership skills. As a Fulbright Fellow in 2006-2007, Adam focused on HIV/AIDS research and outreach at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Scholarship with a Civic Mission
RSL was the centerpiece of Scholarship with a Civic Mission, a campus-wide initiative for undergraduates that was co-sponsored by the Hart Leadership Program and the Kenan Institute for Ethics from 2002-2006. RSL is a promising pedagogy because it makes service-learning and civic engagement an organic part of a university’s research mission, not peripheral or antithetical to it. In doing so, it harkens back to the origins of research universities in a vision of scholarship in the public’s service. Scholarship with a Civic Mission dovetailed beautifully with the university’s emphasis on knowledge in the service to society.
The three-stage RSL model begins with a gateway course, continues through an intensive community-based research experience, and culminates in a capstone course.
The project was made possible through a grant from the Fund for Improvement in Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) of the U.S. Department of Education, with additional funding by Duke’s Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. Learn more.
RSL Pathway in Sanford School
In the fall of 2006, the Hart Leadership Program began creating a research service learning pathway in the undergraduate studies program of the Sanford School of Public Policy. The model consists of:
- A gateway course in which students develop basic research skills, complete 20 hours of community service, and write a policy memo or research proposal that integrates their service experience with the concepts of the course.
- An independently-funded community-based research project with a partner organization in the summer.
- A capstone project linked to the community-based research—through an independent study course or honors seminar, and present their work publicly.