A child at Catholic Charities works on a project with St. Thomas students.

Paired Sociology Classes Double Their Engagement, Impact Together

College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) sociology assistant professor Patricia Maddox and Dougherty Family College (DFC) clinical faculty Jennifer Trost have done something unique with their respective sociology classes. For three years now they have been creating a double community engagement experience for some of their Introduction to Sociology students. Through the creation of their course partnership, which emerged out of great intention, trust and dogged commitment, they now consider each other friends and trusted colleagues.

Initially sharing stories of being first-generation college students, they started collaborating on presentations around campus. Soon, they began having conversations about the integration of the DFC and CAS. In the summer of 2017, they signed up for the Center for the Common Good’s Community Engagement Institute, and the synergies they saw in their work started to reveal themselves. Something more than community engagement grew out of their budding partnership – something Maddox calls “double engagement”: They wanted each of their respective classes to engage not only with the broader community, but also with one another.

“I wanted my students to feel as if they had a home and a place within the larger university. I wanted them to begin to build partnerships and engagement with other students,” Trost said.

And so, their partnership – recognized statewide for its innovative model and effective strategies – was born.

The programming stems from support from the Center for Common Good's Academic Community Engagement or ACE, as it is known informally. Led by the center’s associate director, Kelly Sardon-Garrity, and faculty director, Jessica Hodge, associate professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice, ACE has been working behind the scenes to connect faculty to community partners so that they may take learning outside the four walls of their classrooms.

Doing more, together

At first, Maddox and Trost decided to bring their classes together to reflect on their separate community involvement projects, all of which were centered around the topic of housing discrimination. Trost’s three classes, with an overall enrollment of over 75 students, visited the Shelter in St. Paul performing check-ins and meal services, while Maddox’s single section, enrolling about 20 students, worked in a smaller, more intimate setting with the Catholic Charities Family Service Center (FSC) in Maplewood for families experiencing homelessness. The classes met at the beginning of the semester for orientation, and again at the end of the semester for a reflection.

As they refined their purpose, they realized meeting only two times a semester wasn’t going to build relationships, and they regretted the students weren’t sharing time at the site together.

“Her students seemed to want similar close experiences,” Maddox said. “The CAS students got to actually interact with some of the families and the children.”

“The two classes had very different experiences and they didn't have the opportunity to connect,” Trost added. “So we decided at the end of the fall the first year that, for spring semester, we would co-teach four additional classes together and have students volunteer side-by-side.”

Trost’s students got their wish, and students from both classes volunteered at the FSC as one group – DFC and CAS students coming together to plan, coordinate and execute simple activities for the children living at the Family Service Center, while simultaneously providing a bit of respite to their parents.

Now, three years later, their partnership is being recognized by President Julie Sullivan and Iowa and Minnesota Campus Compact as an exemplary model for community engagement with the Presidents’ Civic Engagement Leadership Award. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the partnership has increased its emphasis on food and craft donations, and created a YouTube channel where students can record videos of book reading, how-to instructions and magic tricks for the children.

Feeling the impact

Talia Smith, a client advocate at the FSC, welcomed the ongoing help. She noted consistency is key when it comes to making a difference in the lives of their residents.

“The majority of people who come in here come consistently, and they make some kind of impact,” she said.

As for the experience St. Thomas students bring to the center, Smith recognized the impact is important, even if it seems fleeting at times. That energy, she recognized, can have a lasting impact on the kids as their families are going through difficult times.

“Through the day the high energy, especially for the kids, carries out,” she said.

The good vibes weren’t just for the children living at the FSC; it electrified the college students as well.  Students from both Maddox and Trost’s classes unanimously shared they enjoyed visiting the center, though they recognized the work was neither convenient nor easy. In fact, the work could take an emotional toll.

Lisa Andrade, a first-year student at DFC, admitted she felt some stress in the situation because of the connection she felt to the children living at the center. The impact, for her, was greater because she had a deeper understanding of their circumstances through the things she learned in the classroom and through their shared text, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. In order to practice self-care, she said she confides in her significant other and finds comfort in the talks they have.

“You’re noticing it firsthand, and it’s really eye-opening,” she said.

Allie Kock, a first-year student in the CAS, felt similarly.

“I feel like, in a sense, we get more out of it because we’re learning about these things in a class but then we get to see real-world experience about how people are actually living,” she said. “It’s not just reading it in a textbook.”

While the community work was eye-opening for all of the students, many of them knew what they were signing up for and were happy that they did.

“I specifically chose this Sociology [section],” said Rose Reubish, a first-year student in the CAS. “I want to do something along the lines of public policy and reform, so getting out there and figuring out exactly what I want to do, and being introduced to it through a service learning course, it’s way different than sitting in a class.”

While Maddox and Trost worked with the Center for the Common Good to prep and plan the course, the work done at the Family Service Center is shaped by the students themselves. And because of this ownership, they have taken their relationship building skills to new levels.

“I think it’s far more rewarding than they expected it to be,” Trost said. “At first, they thought they were just going to give up a Saturday or two and that was it. But I think they've been surprised at how much they enjoy it. Some of them have asked if they can go back. I tell them yes, but maybe not in the same way we’ve been going as a class. Maybe you could build a relationship with some of the staff people and then they could find a regular volunteer role for you.”

Whether the students go back and continue the relationship is yet to be seen, but for now, the double engagement seems to be working for the students.

"Students in our courses were able to come together, see real-world applications of sociological concepts, and engage with one another and the community around these topics. All of which advance our mission here at St. Thomas,” Maddox said.

“It reminds you of where people are coming from, and to stay open to ideas,” said Alonso Ruiz Cota, a first-year at DFC.

Both the Higher Ground Emergency Center and the Maplewood Family Service Center are run by Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which is an official partner of the University of St. Thomas.