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When working with service-learners, the interesting phenomenon of how to say “goodbye” often arises. Students work with an agency or school on a short-term basis; they experience the frustrations and difficulties as well as the successes and hopes of working with different populations. What do students need to know when they no longer are required to fulfill service ours? How should they best prepare those with whom they are working for their departure?

What is closure?

Closure is the term used to signify the ending of an experience. This word represents a process, a period of time meant to effectively prepare students for the conclusion of an experience. The process of closure can also be identified as a time of transition, transition from one semester to another. The movement of time, semester to semester, involves more than academic knowledge in a service-learning course. The knowledge gained from relationships and applying academic knowledge raises concerns regarding emotions and commitments when those learning venues are no longer required. How can service-learners effectively manage this transition? Service-learning students move from a giving relationship to something else. They do not have to give and often are too busy to continue serving after the semester/term is complete. Thus, the process of transition begins.

What happens during the transition process?

A variety of theorists have developed models relating to transition experiences. The models usually involve a variety of stages of feelings a person may encounter. The following is a seven-stage transition process model outlined by Hopson and Adams with characteristics to describe each temporary period of time (Schlossberg, 1984, p. 58).

  1. Immobilization: intense feelings of despair or elation about the service-learning experience may occur. The intensity will depend upon the impact of the transition.
  2. Denial or minimization: time “stops” and the service-learning experience does not receive direct emotional attention so the suffering feelings are relieved. The learner’s emotions need to take a break.
  3. Self-doubt: feelings arise which could potentially take the forms of depression, anxiety, anger or sadness.
  4. Letting go: the transition is felt deeply by the service-learner.
  5. Testing-out: the service-learner may have mood swings replete with irritability and impatience during this period of time.
  6. Search for meaning: the service-learner will begin to question and analyze what they learned from the experience.
  7. Integration: “Integration not only involves renewal but also incorporates an acceptance that the transition is now complete. This means that it has become part of one’s history… It will have an influence over future directions, but it is not imprisoning one in the past” (Hopson, 1981, p. 38)

How does one create closure?

Often students will begin to experience these feelings of transition, but do not know how to effectively manage them. Service-learning journals provide a healthy outlet for this experience, however, additional activities may assist students and those they serve to navigate the emotional highs and lows. The following are some suggestions provided by service-learning practitioners from schools across the country. This list is far from exhaustive but at the least can act as a spring board for new and adapted ideas fitting your service-learning students and their service sites.


In anticipation of final visits to service sites, service-learners inform the site supervisor and those they are serving that they will only be coming for three more visits. This process would be repeated on the second-to-last visit and final visit. By providing this information, the site supervisor will be alerted to the loss of assistance and the persons being served will have the opportunity to emotionally experience closure and express their “goodbye’s.”


  • Time of celebration: a gathering with drinks, snacks, cake; a dinner or picnic
  • Time of acknowledgement: a sharing time describing accomplishments; provide certificates of accomplishment; provide awards for key participants or leaders; take photographs; share photographs previously taken of or by the service-learners or those being served; create a bulletin board, photo album, other momento to signify the experience

“Can I Come Live with You” Role Play

Divide into two groups. One group brainstorms the kinds of things the persons they serve (i.e. kids being tutored) might say or do during the last week. The other group brainstorms the things the persons serving (tutors) might say or do during the last week. Then, without prior warning, ask those who had brainstormed behaviors of persons being served to play the role of a person serving and those who had brainstormed behaviors of persons serving to play the role of a persons being served. Ask for a volunteer from each group to come to the middle of the room to act out a possible last day episode. After having the chance to get started, the brainstorming teams can coach the actors when they get stuck.

After the exercise, reflect on the interaction. One group of service-learners came to the following conclusions.

  • Persons being served may be incredibly imaginative and passionate when they realize the end of a relationship is near.
  • Persons serving need to think through saying “goodbye” by framing or setting boundaries to their role and relationship.
  • The closing experience will be hard for both parties.

Letters (done as individuals or groups; done while the persons being served do a similar project and there could be a formal exchange)

  • Service-learners write a letter to the service site sharing how the experience changed them, what they have learned, and the lasting impact the service has had on them.
  • Service-learners write a letter to the person being served about how the experience changed them, what they have learned, the lasting impact the person has had on them, and expressing their appreciation of the shared experience.
  • Service-learners write a letter to the “replacements”/future service-learners at that site, sharing the insights and wisdom they gained from the experience.
  • Letter writing within a group of students who have shared a service experience together. Pick a name out of a hat and write a letter to that one person saying what the writer appreciated about having been in the group with that person and about what that person contributed.
  • The faculty member, service-learning coordinator, site supervisor writes a letter addressed to an entire class telling them their own perspective and thanking them for the activity and participation.
  • Letter writing between the service-learner and the person being served after the service experience is complete. The service-learner should invite the person being served to write first, after which they will respond. In this manner, the service-learner is relieved of guilt later and the person being served does not have a promise that could potentially lead to another disappointment.


  • Make a tape of music both parties like
  • Take a Polaroid to the last service visit and take pictures of each other to exchange
  • A book

Leave a Legacy

  • Start something that will continue after the term of service has ended. This provides an opportunity to engage and empower the persons being served to continue to work already begun.

Behaviors to avoid when saying “goodbye”

  • During the last visits to a service site many emotions may come to the surface for the person serving and the person being served. In those moments often persons serving may say or do something inappropriate to a very emotionally vulnerable person. Be aware to avoid doing the following.
    • Do not make promises that cannot be kept. Those being served have seen workers on whom they depended come and go, sometimes throughout their lives. A service-learner may become “romanticized” to a person being served and may lead or inspire the service-learner to make a promise to perpetuate that feeling of good will.
  • Bringing an end to an experience is a process and hopefully these tools will enable service-learning participants to move through closure in a healthy manner.

Works Cited

Schlossberg, N. Counseling Adults in Transition: Linking Practice with Theory. Springer: New York, 1984.

Schlossberg, N., Lynch, A., & Chickering, A. Improving Higher Education Environments for Adults: Responsive Programs and Services from Entry to Departure. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1989.


  • Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges.
  • Other books by Nancy Schlossberg
  • Literature on termination of counseling with children
  • Maryland State Mentoring Resource Center—410.685.8316
  • Terms to consider in your search: termination, separation, closure, transition

Contributing Voices

From the service-learning listserve network (service-learning@csf.colorado.edu):

  • Gail Albert
  • Kim Johnson Bogart
  • Judy Boss
  • Megan Cooperman
  • Steve Elliott
  • Tony Evans
  • Britt Jacobson
  • Joseph Mertz
  • Alice Reich
  • Beth Weiss
  • Marilyn Zucker