“Working with nature has helped my soul”

A UWM student’s service-learning course turned into a career.


Ellie Kirkwood provides guidance to current UW-Milwaukee service learners and other community volunteers.

Ellie Kirkwood (’13 BA Conservation and Environmental Science) found a way to synthesize her personal, professional and civic identities through environmental work at the River Revitalization Foundation, a Milwaukee nonprofit.

The foundation’s mission is to establish a parkway for public access, walkways, recreation and education bordering the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers; to use the rivers to revitalize surrounding neighborhoods; and to improve water quality.

Currently, Kirkwood is a field supervisor with the foundation, and she draws from her experiences and provides guidance to current UW-Milwaukee service learners and other community volunteers.

In 2009, Kirkwood enrolled at UWM intending to pursue a philosophy major. However, after taking an academic service-learning course in conservation and environmental science with Professor Mai Phillips, she discovered her passion and interest in restoration work. Through her service-learning course, Kirkwood began to apply the class content to her service with River Revitalization.

“At first, I had no idea what service-learning was and I was shocked because I learned so much! You have an opportunity to learn and retain information in a different way than you would in the classroom.”

She described working in the forest as fun and exciting, almost in disbelief that this was part of her coursework. This compelled her to do more than the 10 hours required and helped her conceptualize the global impact of restoration work.

“It’s about working in scales and moving your way up the scales. My professor introduced me to the idea of thinking in scales. So my work as a service-learner impacted a tiny corridor, but when each person is working in their own corridor it builds up to a sustainable environment. “

Academic service-learning is course-based service in the community that relates to course content while also meeting identified community needs. Students reflect on the service activity to gain further understanding of the course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility.

Due to her positive service-learning experiences, Kirkwood decided to switch her major to Conservation and Environmental Science. She continued to volunteer with the River Revitalization Foundation as an intern, was later promoted to a field assistant, and then landed her current job as a field supervisor.

Kirkwood’s experience with academic service-learning at UWM not only led to a job, but provided invaluable skills that have helped her develop personally and professionally, she says. She encourages current students to take advantage of the service-learning courses that are offered.


The mission of UWM’s Center for Community-Based Learning, Leadership, and Research (CCBLLR) is to partner with the community to inspire students, faculty and staff to engage in activities that foster enduring personal and social change. The CCBLLR coordinates the academic service-learning program throughout the UWM campus. For more information, go to www.community.uwm.edu or stop by the center’s office in the UWM Union, room G28.



Ellie Kirkwood graduated from UWM in 2013 with a BA in Conservation and Environmental Science.