Service learning: Theology students work with people with HIV/AIDS

Service learning: Theology students work with people living with HIV/AIDS

Editors' note: Many University of St. Thomas students, faculty and staff are involved in service-learning courses and programs. Here, sophomore journalism major Dave Blomquist writes about theology students whose service-learning course connects them with Open Arms of Minnesota.

By Dave Blomquist, Service-Learning student intern

When Dr. Kimberly Vrudny taught the class Art, Beauty and the Revelation of the Divine at St. John’s University, she struggled to help her students understand the transcendental nature of beauty.

When she had the opportunity to teach the course again at the University of St. Thomas, Vrudny knew she must teach it with an entirely different approach.

The course raises important theological questions. What happens when beauty is crucified? Is beauty killed or does it remain present? Is there beauty in suffering?

In a search for a new way to help students answer these questions, Vrudny attended a workshop given by Dr. Ellen Kennedy, Service-Learning director. Vrudny connected with Open Arms of Minnesota, an organization that prepares and delivers meals to people living with HIV/AIDS.

During the workshop, Vrudny designed a course that integrated a service-learning project with Open Arms as part of her planned coursework.

Students delivered meals to people living with HIV/AIDS and saw their struggles firsthand. Students kept a journal about their experiences and wrote about the beauty in suffering.

“I can’t imagine the course without the service-learning project,” a student wrote in a course survey. “It would seem devoid of content and context.”

Another student wrote, “I go to a private liberal arts school and this is exactly why.”

Even after the students finished the course last year, 25 percent of them returned to volunteer at Open Arms.

Vrudny said the service-learning project has been very successful and she wouldn’t want to teach the course again without it.

“Because of our partnership with Open Arms, stereotypes of those living with AIDS were challenged by our students even as they increased their understanding of the local and global impact of the virus," Vrudny said. "Many students developed compassion for those living with HIV/AIDS. The service-learning component of the class was vital in helping us think in greater depth about the theological dimension of beauty."

Other courses plan to connect with Open Arms to expand the St. Thomas partnership. In spring 2006, Tim Scully’s film students will document clients’ life experiences to share with potential donors, other clients, and the public. St. Thomas is seeking grant support for up to eight courses to work with Open Arms.