Campus Highlight: The Ripple Effect Learning Community at Western Carolina University

By Lane Perry, Director of the Center for Service Learning;  Zach Rumble, Graduate Assistant in the Center for Service Learning; Cyndy Caravelis, Associate Professor of Criminology; David Onder, Director of Assessment; and Glenda Hensley, Director of the Office of the First-Year Experience—all of Western Carolina University.

In 1966, Robert F. Kennedy delivered a seminal commencement speech at the University of Cape Town that included this message, which is still relevant today: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance [emphasis added].”

This message serves as the cornerstone of the Ripple Effect Learning Community (RELC). We believe that before individuals can stand up for what they believe in, they must first determine what it is that they care enough about to do something about in this world—this is the departure point for the RELC experience. As a Carnegie Community Engaged classified university, Western Carolina University (WCU) is a place where individual and collective student talent abounds. Raw talent, while a valuable resource, must be cultivated in order to be fully realized. At WCU, the mission focuses on “improve[ing] individual lives and enhance[ing] economic and community development in our region, state, and nation through engaged learning opportunities.” WCU seeks to develop student talent through community engagement as it is core to WCU’s strategic plan and is an integral aspect of the student experience. The seed-funding offered by BTtoP did exactly what it was designed to do—it served as the much needed infusion of resources to liberate the RELC idea and provide the space to bring the program to life.

The RELC seeks to identify and support first-year students at WCU who are interested in exploring the depths of their own heart and mind in juxtaposition with the challenges and opportunities that exist within their community. Building upon the tenets of Hesse and Gandhi, RELC aims to provide educational experiences that prepare students to identify what they truly love about the world and ultimately be the change they want to see in it. Through the disciplinary lenses of social entrepreneurship and social justice, RELC facilitates examinations into historical and current cases in conjunction with theories of social change.

The RELC experience includes the following initiatives delivered as an interdisciplinary model:

  • Pre-Semester Engagement Retreat
  • Community Engagement Project
  • Learning Communities
  • Critical Reflection

The RELC’s overarching goals for students are the following:

  • Working collaboratively with community partners, students construct a plan to pursue an intended solution to an identified community-based issue.
  • Through reflection, students clarify their sense of direction and personal values.
  • As a result of participation in the RELC, students develop a sense of self and sense of preferences/purpose as it relates to social and personal responsibilities.

In a study of participants in the first offering of the RELC program (n=21), the cohort obtained higher fall-to-fall retention rates (90 percent) and higher first-year GPAs (m=3.23) when compared to their counterparts represented in a control group. Additionally, using the Critical Reflection Questionnaire (Kember et al. 2000), it was evident that students in the RELC program are more likely to critically reflect (e.g., questioning the way others do something and determining a better way; to think over what has been done and consider alternatives) on their course experiences than some of their control group counterparts.

Finally, community engagement was measured in line with ‘preference approach’ offered by Payne (2000). Simply framed, the Community Service Involvement Preference Inventory measures students’ preferred approach to engagement with the community on the following scale:

  • Exploration – apprehensive of new experiences, unsure how best to help others, tend to be involved due to self-satisfaction of helping, and commitment is short-term/convenient.
  • Affiliation – inclination for service involvement is primarily peer-based, recognition is an incentive, shorter duration, and interpersonal interactions provide safe, buffered environment.
  • Experimentation – centered on personal challenge, understanding the needs of those served is dominant, and long-term charge leads to clearer insight into needs of community.
  • Assimilation – reflects lifelong commitment to service, deeper understanding of the needs of those served parallels a personal investment to long-term commitments, and makes lifestyle decisions based on being a responsible citizen.

Participants in the RELC program saw statistically significant decreases in their preference of an exploration approach to engagement, and while not statistically significant, there was a clear increase in RELC participants’ preference in the assimilation approach to engagement, potentially indicating a long-term commitment to civic and community engagement. One student succinctly noted, “The RELC helped me strengthen myself and my ideas of the world around me. RELC made it possible for a conversation with a refugee to unveil my personal drive and my ‘why.’”

Now in its third year, and with nearly 80 students having completed the program, the RELC has served as an essential resource for WCU’s campus. The program has been offered in fall 2013, 2014, and 2015 and reframed as the Catamount Gap: Convergence Learning Community over the 2015 summer. The RELC continues to grow and is currently preparing to increase its impact through WCU’s new Learning Community Model in fall 2016. For more information on the RELC, visit:



Kennedy, Robert F. 1966. “University of Cape Town, South Africa N.U.S.A.S. Day of Affirmation Speech.” Commencement Address, June 6.

Payne, Christopher A. 2000. “Changes in Involvement Preferences as Measured by the Community Service Involvement Preference Inventory.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 7 (1): 41–53.

Kember, David, Doris Leung, Alice Jones, Alice Yuen Loke, Jan McKay, Kit Sinclair, Harrison Tse, Celia Webb, Frances Kam Yeut Wong, Marian Wong, and Ella Yeung. 2010. “Development of a Questionnaire to Measure the Level of Reflective Thinking.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 25 (4): 381–395.