About a dozen students have been working for months on a modest, two-bedroom house that sits on blocks at the edge of the Leech Lake Tribal College campus.
The students started construction last fall, and now they're nearing the end, putting on siding and installing doors and woodwork inside.
What's special about the project is these students are building the house for their elders. By June, the house will be trucked north to the neighboring Red Lake Indian Reservation, where there's a severe housing shortage.
Twenty-seven-year-old Shane Roy has battled alcohol abuse problems in the past, but now he's focused on building this house. Roy says building it for his elders motivates him to do his best.
"It's a good way to, I don't know, put back into the community, I guess," says Roy. "I don't know, in a lot of ways it's opened my eyes up. Every minute I put into this place, I give it my all and I'm building this house like it would be my own."
Historically, American Indians have had the lowest level of educational attainment of any ethnic group in the country.
Some of these students are the first in their families to go to college.
The group is part of an Americorps effort called the Citizen Scholar Fellows Program, which targets minority and low-income students.
Participants are required to put in 300 hours of community service, either on building the house, or on some other community project. In exchange, they get $1,000 they can use however they want.
Flossy Morgan, 44, says she plans to use the money to continue her education. She wants to get her associate degree at the tribal college.
Morgan says she took the carpentry class so she could learn to build a home for her family. She says the fellows program has created a tight-knit group with a common goal.
"It teaches us a lot about volunteer services for our community," says Morgan. "It's amazing, because it's kind of like we started with just the ground, you know what I mean? And now you can see it's come a long ways. I mean everything that's been done, it's a team effort."
Creating that team concept is one of the goals of the program. Catherine Day, director of Minnesota Campus Compact, a non-profit group that administers the program, says connecting those teams to a community service project makes learning more relevant.
"The idea is that they are a cohort and a group," says Day. "In essence they're forming a learning community. Some of the general research out there about academic success is that if you're in a learning community and see connectivity between you and others who are studying you are more likely to be successful."
Day says studies show the cohort concept, combined with a community service project that relates to academic goals, encourages students to be persistent in their education.
"What we're working on is deepening the connection between student, institution and community," Day says. "We think that when someone finds a connection in their community and they find relevance in their learning and they can see a purpose to focusing their attention, they're much more likely to succeed."
There are more than 70 scholar fellows on five Minnesota campuses. At Minnesota State University Mankato, students help provide meals to the poor. Students at St. Cloud Technical College provide plumbing services to the community. Participants at the University of Minnesota provide tutoring for a family literacy program.
Results are promising for retention and performance. Last year, nearly 90 percent of scholar fellows returned to school. That's nearly 20 percent higher than recipients of the Pell Grant. Program participants also have higher grade point averages than their Pell grant counterparts.
Service learning initiatives have been around since the 70s, but they're growing in popularity. Janet Eyler, professor of education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville has studied the effectiveness of service learning. Eyler says students who interact with the community are better learners.
"Those who were actually engaged in the real world with issues that were related to what they were studying in the classroom showed a much more sophisticated quality of thinking, ability to deal with complex issues, so it produces a deeper sort of learning," says Eyler.
Eyler says some studies have shown that students who've participated in service learning in college go on to be more active community members.
"The goals are personal development, self-confidence, a sense that you can make a difference in the world, the sense of responsibility," says Eyler. "There have been a number of studies that sort of trace students' engagement in this sort of thing in school, and in fact people who are engaged in these kinds of activities in school do engage more in the community after they graduate."
Eyler says she'd like to see service learning expand.
"They ought to start in kindergarten. The time for children to develop a sense of themselves as pro-social beings, as contributing members of their society is when they're small'" she says.
Officials at Leech Lake Tribal College say the students who are participating in the Citizen Scholar Fellows Program are showing signs the program is working. Attendance and grades are up; half of the group has made the dean's or president's list for their achievement.
Leech Lake Tribal College President Leah Carpenter credits the program with instilling a sense of commitment in the group.
"They make that connection on a very personal level for themselves on the believe that each individual person can make a difference," says Carpenter. "And we're also able to help the folks at Red Lake who are desperately in need of housing, so it's really a win-win situation for everyone.
Federal funding for the scholar fellows program was just renewed for another three years. Several more Minnesota campuses will join the program this fall.