U sees growing demand for courses incorporating community service

PCharlene Dick Pang Lee and Long Yang are oral language translators at the Jane Addams School for Democracy on St. Paul’s west side.

They are also students in University philosophy professor John Wallace’s “Education and Social Change” class, a forum on democratic education.

Democratic education, which the Jane Addams School – a community-based education program – tries to model, blurs the distinction between teacher and student to emphasize learning by all participants.

Through their combination of community service and academic study, Lee and Yang engage in service learning. The number of University students in these types of classes is growing, along with the number of service-learning classes offered.

During fall semester 2002, 800 students were enrolled in 20 service-learning classes, compared to 62 students and five courses in fall 1997, according to records from the College of Liberal Arts’ College and Community Learning Center.

Adults who visit the Jane Addams School, where Lee and Yang volunteer, generally come to learn in order to pursue U.S. citizenship.

Gaining citizenship allows them to vote, travel with a U.S. passport and petition for relatives to come to the United States, which makes learning the requirements a priority, said Yang, a math education senior.

Citizenship candidates must fill out detailed applications, get fingerprinted and pass an oral exam on U.S. history and government – topics Lee and Yang discuss with a group of more than 50 Hmong-speaking students at the school.

In smaller groups, students are able to freely discuss subjects ranging from shamanism to state budget cuts, which builds a sense of community within the school, said Lee, a U.S. history senior.

Lee translates the discussions so both English and Hmong speakers can absorb the conversations and contribute.

Besides volunteering every week, Lee and Yang attend Wallace’s class to process their experiences and to share insights and frustrations with other students participating in service learning.

“(Wallace) asks questions where you have to think deeply,” Yang said.

Lee agreed.

“Whatever we discuss in class, I always reflect. I always step back and think of Jane Addams and how it fits in,” Lee said.

In 1996, Wallace helped found the Jane Addams School, which is affiliated with the University’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

Its affiliation with the University has secured a way for students to earn credit through service at the school, but sometimes finding service-learning volunteer opportunities isn’t always so easy.

An uneasy mix

Last year, University history professor Ruth Karras proposed that students in a first-year history course volunteer at the Science Museum of Minnesota this spring. Karras’ idea was that students would tour the museum’s special Viking exhibit and volunteer at it.

But the museum ultimately rejected Karras’ proposal. Museum administrators required Viking volunteers to train in November, months before the class would first assemble.

Karras had to cancel the service-learning portion of her class.

Her experience illustrates the difficulty some instructors face in finding student volunteer work that helps community organizations.

“It’s not service if the volunteers aren’t meeting the needs of the organization, and we couldn’t meet their needs,” Karras said.

It isn’t that Science Museum officials don’t want student volunteers.

“We welcome them with open arms,” said Jane Wangberg, Science Museum volunteers director.

The museum uses both individual University students and whole groups, such as first-year medical students who work in the museum’s Human Body Gallery.

But there needs to be a good fit, Wangberg said.

Organizations can find it difficult to use large groups of volunteers at once. And while the museum values long-term volunteer commitments, requesting full-time students to sign on for an extended amount of time is a lot to ask, Wangberg said.

One place students and instructors can find information on volunteer openings and required qualifications is the University’s Career and Community Learning Center.

Four Career and Community Learning Center coordinators tackle the obstacle of placing hundreds of students at organizations around the Twin Cities.

Together, the coordinators keep detailed records of community organizations potentially interested in students’ services.

Eventually, they compile their information into lists for specific service-learning classes. Then, when a semester begins, students have promising choices for service experiences.

Students also have contact, background and even bus line information prepared for them about prospective organizations.

The coordinators also organize training sessions that help make students ready for taking on the challenge of working at their placements.

New undergrad programs

When implemented, service-learning classes can trigger new programs of study.

For example, in the past, CLA has offered teaching English as a second language only to graduate students.

But undergraduates have saturated an experimental service-learning class since it was first offered two years ago. As a result, CLA might offer an ESL minor next fall.

“Students’ interest sparked our belief that we could sustain an undergraduate minor,” ESL professor Elaine Tarone said.

Her 45 undergraduate students teach ESL to children, high school students and adults weekly at seven or eight schools in the Twin Cities, Tarone said.

Other experimental classes are also finding success.

In “Introduction to the Health Professions,” taught by Academic Health Center vice president Barbara Brandt, 11 students study medical resources in the Twin Cities and some people’s lack of access to health care.

Brandt invites dentists, doctors and nurses to visit her class, and some students read to children in waiting rooms at Community-University Health Care Center, a community clinic in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood.

While students in health professions have rigorous clinical requirements, those in preprofessional programs might find it difficult to serve community organizations, Brandt said.

Her class is unique, Brandt said, because it’s “designed to meet the level of the student.”

To mature the students’ career goals, Brandt requires them to write their reactions to community service.

“I’m forcing them to think about what they want to be when they grow up,” she said.

Brandt likely will teach the course again next year, she said. The class helps her test her ideas for the Academic Health Center’s new Health Careers Center, which helps students evaluate their interest in health care professions, and guides those who are serious through the professional schools’ application process.

Long-term service

Many students, including Lee and Yang, said they plan to continue in the civic involvement to which service-learning classes introduced them.

“I would do this no matter what. Even after I graduate, I think I’ll come back,” Lee said.

“Students continue volunteering even though they’re not required to anymore, because they build a relationship,” Yang said.

Within two weeks, the Career and Community Learning Center will post a list of next fall’s service-learning classes on www.cclc.umn.edu.

Charlene Dick is a freelance writer. The freelance editor welcomes comments at [email protected]