How college students make sense of organizational structures and work in schools as participants in a paid service learning program

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Higher Education


Paid service learning, Work study, College students, Organizational structures, Service-learning, Community service

Subject Categories



This dissertation is a qualitative study of how college students make sense of organizational structures and work in schools in a paid service learning program at Midsize University (MU): the Literacy Team (LT). The LT is MU's implementation of the America Reads program, a federal initiative that provides college students with work-study funding to tutor children with literacy needs in area schools. The Community Service Office at MU collaborated with the City School District to implement the program during a 6-week, inclusive summer school program.

Guided by a constructivist paradigm, the study examined 15 tutors' perspectives towards their work through the use of interviews and document analysis and the experiences of 31 additional tutors through participant observation, document analysis and focus group interviews. Throughout this dissertation, I argue that LT participants negotiated organizational structures, relationships and understandings of ideas they encountered in ways that reinforced and sometimes challenged too simple ways of representing complex contexts. It is important to understand the competing dualisms and dissonance constructed by LT participants because in this study the foci of the conceptual demarcations are central to what makes service learning distinctive.

In the first data chapter, I explore how tutors made sense of the organizational structures of the LT. Next, I discuss how tutors wrestled with aspects of reciprocity in their relationship with the students they tutored. Finally, I describe how tutors negotiated the notions of ability and inclusion through their relationships with students with disabilities. Tutors' dichotomous constructions of their experiences were mediated by their experiences in the world, as well as the historical and cultural forces that shape organizations.

This study contributes to the higher education literature by providing insights into students' understandings and feelings as they negotiated organizational structures, relationships and the complexities associated with their ability and privilege in a sparsely-researched model of service learning. Educators can consider these insights in helping students develop more sophisticated ways of knowing, as well as understanding and supporting individuals who are "not like" themselves. If issues surfaced by students through service learning experiences are not examined critically, they can reinforce stereotypes and systems of privilege.


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