The Thousand Year Flood: University Students’ Reflections on Service Learning Experiences Before and After a Natural Disaster

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Service learning allows health sciences students to connect what they learn in the classroom with real-world experiences. The goal of this article was to examine the experiences of students in a nutrition course who completed their service learning assignment at a community food bank before or after a large natural disaster—the October 2015 flood in South Carolina. Sources of data included an online survey and a qualitative content analysis of the service learning assignment reflection papers. Students (n = 106 completed the course) equally valued their service learning experience at both pre- and post-flood periods; however, significantly more post-flood students (44%) rated the training they received prior to volunteering as inadequate than pre-flood students (7%, χ2 = 7.55, p < .01). From the reflection papers, themes that emerged more often in post-flood papers were related to altruism (e.g., mentions of wanting to volunteer in the future, include others in their volunteer experiences, or donate food) as compared to pre-flood papers, which tended to mention more of the technical aspects of volunteering, such as comments around sorting or bagging food. Analysis of the reflection papers also revealed several students who volunteered pre-flood but returned to volunteer again after the flood. The results of this study indicate that students can familiarize themselves with volunteer opportunities through service learning that enable them to return to their volunteer location at a time of community crisis and need; however, additional training regarding the impact of natural disasters would be beneficial.

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