Doing Well and Doing Good: Service-Learning at St.Thomas

Students learn to recognize both their responsibility and their power to create social change

St. Thomas music students perform at neighborhood hospices, the premature-baby nursery at Regions Hospital, a Jewish nursing home and low-income apartments for the elderly. Sociology students teach English language and American culture to Somali immigrants at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis. Public relations students organize three fund-raising events for the University of Minnesota Children’s Foundation. Justice and peace students travel to Selma, Ala., to tutor school-age children suffering from the consequences of race, economics and politics in the South.

Our undergraduate students in nearly all academic disciplines are taking their academic learning out into the community to serve others as a required part of their course activity. This is a form of experiential education called service-learning.

Part of our mission here at St. Thomas is to develop students who will succeed and do well. An equally important part of the mission, however, is to send our students away from the arches with a strong passion to do good. How do we accomplish this? Our faculty and staff have a vision of social justice, equity, and the possibility of a better world that they transmit to our students.

Several years ago I had a student who worked as a tutor in a kindergarten class. The student was a shot-putter, a really big guy. On the first day in that classroom he broke the little chair that he sat on, and from that moment on the kids adored him. They hugged him all the time — around the knees, which was as high as they could reach. Many of them had no father figure in their lives and he became very important to them, a responsibility that he accepted with joy. Matt Maruggi, our current director of the Tutor-Mentor program, has many heartwarming stories like this because more than 600 Tommies work in classrooms throughout the Twin Cities.

Service-learning certainly isn’t new; many professors were engaging their students through this technique long before it was identified as such. When I was an undergraduate psychology major at the University of Michigan studying schizophrenia, for example, our entire Psych 566 class worked directly with schizophrenic patients at a nearby state psychiatric hospital once a week. And outside the classroom, students were highly committed to social change and were active in the social movements of the decade, advocating for women’s equality, civil rights and an end to war.

But by the "me" decade of the 1980s, students became much less concerned with the quality of our civic life. University presidents across the country became alarmed at what they saw as an increasing level of student apathy. They feared that students were not sufficiently recognizing both their responsibility and/or their power to create positive social change.

These presidents came together in 1985 to form an organization called Campus Compact. These academic leaders from Brown, Stanford and other leading universities felt it was imperative that students begin to see the connection between the knowledge they acquire through education and the broader public good. These presidents urged college and university leaders to motivate students to participate in their communities and acquire learning within the context of making the world a better place.

There are now nearly 600 university presidents who have committed their institutions to these goals, including the Rev. Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas. Dease’s vision of our university is that it is both "in and of the city." We have a commitment, he asserts, to become fully engaged in civic life. Our commitment at the institutional level means that there is significant support for service-learning at all levels.

A faculty member serves as the institution’s coordinator for service-learning. This position, created four years ago, was first held by Dr. Bernard Brady, associate professor, Theology Department; I became coordinator in January 1999. The coordinator works with faculty across all academic disciplines to guide the integration of service-learning into our courses through facilitating campus-community networks, teaching faculty workshops, assisting in course support, etc. The Faculty Advisory Board for Service-Learning, comprised of faculty members representing all divisions and disciplines of the undergraduate college, establishes and guides the overall strategy for implementing service-learning at St. Thomas.

Significant recognition is given to faculty who participate in service-learning. The academic dean encourages faculty involvement and gives special acknowledgement in the annual faculty review process. In addition, a cash award of $1,000 is made annually to the faculty member demonstrating the most outstanding work in service-learning.

Last year’s award recipient was Dr. Paul Lorah, assistant professor of geography. Lorah has integrated service-learning into his course, Humans and the Environment. Lorah said: "Students felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of the environmental problems covered in the course. Because of this, I felt that problems like global warming, ozone depletion, deforestation, acid precipitation, and the biodiversity crisis needed to be balanced with examples of environmental recovery. In 1998 I initiated a long-term partnership between this course and the Nature Conservancy, working to protect the Ottawa Bluffs Preserve, a prairie and woodland area in LeSueur County and one of the last remnants of the Minnesota bluffs ecosystem. Over the course of several semesters, we have documented improvements St. Thomas students have made to the Ottawa Bluffs preserve. Students see the benefits of the workdays and experience firsthand the outcome of successful conservation programs."

Lorah’s efforts demonstrate well the key characteristics of service-learning:

What happens in the classroom, the "learning" part, is linked directly to the "service" component. This means that the particular academic discipline and the issues, theories or practices being taught are experienced directly through meaningful service.

• The second part is "community." The needs and forms of service are defined by the community, not by the people providing the service. In Lorah’s class, the needs of the Nature Conservancy for the Ottawa Bluffs Preserve defined what would be done.

• Third, there is reciprocity between the servers and the person or group being served. As one student said, "One of the first things I learned about service is that you get back more than you can ever dream of giving."

• And finally, there is reflection. As a form of experiential education, service- learning is based on the educational principle that learning and develop- ment don’t necessarily occur as a result of the experience itself but as a result of a reflective component that fosters learning and development. Service- learning programs are therefore designed to promote learning about the larger social issues behind the community needs being served. Students think, discuss and write about their experiences.

This year’s faculty award went to Dr. Carol Bruess, assistant professor, Communication Department. Bruess has integrated service-learning into nearly all of her courses. In addition, she has presented 10 papers addressing service-learning integration at national conferences and she received an "Outstanding Teaching" award from the Central States Communication Association, primarily for her work with service-learning.

As examples of her use of service-learning, her students in Intercultural Communication provide assistance to people from cultures different from their own. Her students tutor English language learners at the Global Language Institute, teach immigrants who are applying for citizenship at the International Institute of Minnesota, and assist Vietnamese families through programs at Vietnamese Social Services of Minnesota.

The Family Communication class requires that students document oral histories and family narratives of elderly residents at a local assisted-living facility. This service has been very meaningful to the residents and has provided students with a firsthand look into the nature of family stories and family communication across generations.

The comments from Bruess’ students illustrate the transformative power of service-learning:

• "I learned so much. The service-learning project was excellent. I plan to write family narratives on my own. Service-learning is a great experience."

• "I believe service is an important device for cultivating responsibility toward the community. Doing a service-learning project and working with cultural part-ners gave me an opportunity to expand myself outside this circle and experience what it’s like to give back to the community."

• "This class has been one of the most informative and eye-opening experiences I have had in my life. I think that a service-learning opportunity should be a mandatory experience for all students."

• "Because of the service-learning component of this course, I know that I am going to quit saying, ‘I should get more involved and do some community service.’ Now I actually will."

These students’ eloquent statements demonstrate the power of service-learning to accomplish the goal of the 600 university presidents: to develop civic commitment and responsibility in the next generation. We see further evidence in the students who received this year’s first-time awards for outstanding service-learning efforts as part of their coursework. Senior sociology major Kao Lee Vang worked with the Centre for Asian and Pacific Islanders in Minneapolis as the coordinator of the Mothers and Daughters Program. Freshman biology major Julia Hatler worked at St. Anne’s Place, a shelter for homeless women and their children, and she also prepared materials for science and math faculty to help in their development of service-learning for their courses. She also is publishing a Web page that will house our university’s service-learning information.

Service-learning is expanding rapidly at St. Thomas. We have 22 trips to national and international locations where students serve those in need and learn about the roots of discrimination and poverty. Last summer Mike Klein, direction of volunteer programs at the university, taught a course that combined academic learning with a trip to Selma, Ala. He and the students studied the history of the civil rights movement and worked with African American students in a variety of programs.

This year, for the first time, we nominated a faculty candidate, Bruess, for the distinguished national Erlich Award for service-learning. We also submitted proposals for several national grants to expand our reach into key campus neighborhoods. And our faculty commitment is growing rapidly throughout nearly all departments, including more than 60 faculty.

In January 2001 we also will offer a new course, A VISION of Intercultural Service-learning. This course uses literature (fiction, nonfiction, essays and journal writing) and a profound personal service experience for three weeks in Guatemala to understand the phenomenon of social change. This course, team-taught by Erich Rutten, justice and peace studies, and Dr. Cris Toffolo, political science, represents our effort to incorporate service-learning in many different formats, including an international experience.

Outstanding opportunities for students to engage their discipline and serve their communities closer to home include the following:

Art History —In Dr. Mark Stansbury-O’Donnell’s course, Methods, Approaches and Problems in Art History, students organized and curated an exhibition of pottery from seven areas around the world with classroom partners from Longfellow Magnet School in St. Paul, an inner-city elementary school.

Communication — In Dr. Tim Scully’s videography classes, TV Field Production and Advanced Video Production, students have produced major documentaries for on-campus clients. These documentaries include "Blurred Images," a film about body image issues; "Incivility," dealing with the declining quality of social interaction patterns; and a program about intercultural communication issues. Scully’s students also produce "Campus Scope," a TV news magazine that has received numerous awards for stories that increase awareness of issues, events and people in our community.

Journalism — In Dr. Mark Neuzil’s Persuasion in Writing class, students worked with Guadalupe Area Project High School to organize a fundraising dinner. This is a "school of last resort" for students on St. Paul’s West Side. The event raised more money than any previous fundraising dinners put on by the school. Students have worked with various groups over the years, including Sharing and Caring Hands, Bridge for Success and Loaves and Fishes. Neuzil also teaches Environmental Studies, and his students in Social Dynamics and the Environment helped clean up after the 1998 tornado in St. Peter, Minn., as part of studying about natural environmental damages and social responses. In 1997, students worked in the Red River Valley following the flood; in 1996, students counted winter kill and white-tailed deer in Stearns County; and last year the students studied the timberwolf question, attended legislative hearings and press conferences, and spoke to elected officials.

Business Law — In Dr. Jay Erstling’s classes, students work with Somali students to learn about the link between culture and law. Erstling says, "Working with Somali students opens the St. Thomas students’ eyes to the cultural foundations that underlie our legal system. For example, commercial transactions in the United States are based on credit, which usually entails the payment of interest. But for many Somali students who are devout Muslims, the payment or receipt of interest is prohibited. I thus challenge my students to devise solutions that will enable their Somali counterparts to take part fully in commercial life in the United States."

The words in "service-learning" are linked with a hyphen. This illustrates the permanent joining of the two pieces, the service to the broader community and the learning that accompanies that service. Service-learning engages our students so that when they leave the University of St. Thomas, they will be prepared not only to do well, but also to continue to do good.

Dr. Ellen Kennedy, a professor of marketing who also teaches sociology, has a Ph.D. in marketing from the University of Minnesota and is completing a Ph.D. in sociology, also at Minnesota. She began teaching at St. Thomas in 1986. Kennedy previously was the director of the Aquinas Scholars Honors Program.