St. Thomas' service-learning program goes global

St. Thomas' service-learning program goes global

By Dr. Ellen Kennedy,
Professor and director of Service-Learning

I had a call a few years ago from the academic dean at Long Island University in New York. He had heard me speak several times at national service-learning conferences. Would I be interested, he asked, in teaching a workshop on service-learning to his faculty? He was impressed with what he’d heard about our community-based work at UST. I was thrilled – I love New York, and the thought of having a week in New York and the opportunity to spread the word about service-learning sounded great.

But it got even better. His faculty weren’t in New York. He was in charge of a special program that operated globally, called Friends World Program. He wanted to send me to work with the faculty in India and England.

What an amazing opportunity! We picked some dates, I got malaria pills and a visa for India, prepared my materials, and I was on my way.

I spent a week that year in Bangalore, India, with faculty from that campus and also two professors who’d flown in from their location in Kyoto, Japan. It was my first trip to India. Because the Friends World students spend an entire semester at each of their locations, the faculty are experts in teaching about their own country. This was the best way to learn about such a complicated country – through the expertise and knowledge of people who introduce newcomers to it all the time.

It was challenging to help design service-learning experiences in an environment so different from our own. Service-learning often shows us the underside of a country, because we partner with organizations that address health, education and economic issues for people on the margins of a society. Because of getting this insider’s view of India, I learned a great deal very quickly and was able to adapt much of what we do at St. Thomas to the situations in Bangalore.

After a week in India I went to London, which was a dramatic contrast on the surface, but in many ways the same when we began to focus on service-learning experiences for students. Every country has the same problems; only the people’s faces are different. The scourges of social injustice – poverty, disease and illiteracy – are everywhere, and it’s always rewarding to design campus-community collaborations to make positive changes.

The dean called me again the next year. Would I go to Costa Rica? Absolutely! So I had a chance to learn about issues in another part of the world and to have yet another chance to set up courses and programs like ours.

And this year I had a call from someone else, the coordinator of volunteer programs at the University of Technology in Jamaica. She’d heard me talk about UST’s multi-faceted approach to service-learning and wanted to move her university from a focus on community service and volunteerism to course-based, academic service-learning. I taught a workshop last summer to 20 Jamaican faculty and also had extensive meetings with the president, the senior academic officer, and department chairs to suggest how U-Tech could integrate service-learning into its academic curriculum.

All of this, of course, is happening because of the wonderful faculty at St. Thomas who enrich our campus and community with their outreach. I teach about the work that our professors do – how they and their students help to improve health, education, and economic access for the disadvantaged in the Twin Cities, particularly in our immigrant and refugee communities; in Selma, Ala.; and Honolulu, Hawaii; and around the globe in Guatemala, St. Vincent, Mali and Kenya. Our programs are becoming well-known and are replicated in many places.

Special recognition goes to our seven faculty who have received awards for their outstanding service-learning work: Drs. Paul Lorah (Geography), Carol Bruess (Communication Studies), Randy Herman (Social Work), Mike Klein (Justice and Peace Studies) Bernard Brady (Theology), Tim Scully (Communication Studies), and Shirley Polejewski (Accounting). It’s because of faculty like these dedicated and committed people that we have "gone global."

For more information about service-learning at St. Thomas, send me an e-mail or visit the service-learning Web site.