Service learning plays signficant role at SMC
By NOREEN GILLESPIE
When Chrissie Renner walked into the Logan Center, one of her first tasks was to assist a mentally disabled adult with personal hygiene tasks, such as going to the bathroom.
It wasn't the typical homework assignment.
"I had to face what I never had before," said Renner, a student in professor Beth Neumann's Christian Ethics class last semester. "I was suddenly in this whole experience of putting myself in someone else's shoes."
Neumann's class is just one of several at Saint Mary's participating in a campus-wide initiative called community-based learning: incorporating textbook learning with practical applications through service.
The initiative, part of the objectives president Marilou Eldred introduced two years ago at the start of her presidency, attempts to centralize the community-based learning effort, said Sister Linda Kors, director of Spes Unica Volunteer Resource Center.
"We've had a lot of individuals participate in community-based learning in their classes, but there has never been an effort to centralize it before," Kors said.
The effort to centralize community-based learning is led by a steering committee comprised of Kors and professors Jan Pilarsky, Jeff Breese and Neumann, who for the past year has worked from a grant called "Embedding Service Learning in Teacher Education."
A survey of professors this summer showed not only an interest for community-based learning in a larger capacity, but a demand for it.
"What we are finding out is that a lot of professors have used it and want it [in their classes,]" Kors said.
Neumann, who has been using the program in her class for the past five years, said she has noticed a difference in the quality of learning with the addition of the program.
"The connections that are made through community based learning are crucial," Neumann said. "What we examine in the class is the question, `What does it mean to live the Christian life?'
"When a student can observe someone who is less fortunate than they are, there is a larger impact," she explained.
For Renner, the interaction she had with her charges was critical. She said they fostered learning she wouldn't have found elsewhere, she said.
"At first, it was upsetting to see people in that condition," Renner said. "It is uncomfortable. But it makes you realize that it is your responsibility to take care of these people."
But it was the reception she got from her charges that made Renner want to return, even after the initial shock of her first visit.
"None of them can talk," Renner explained, "But you could just tell they were so happy to see you when you walked in the building. Their eyes would just get so bright when I'd come in. It was such an experience to feel love for someone else, and shift the common focus from yourself."
Neumann, who has worked with community agencies St. Margaret's House, Logan Center, AIDS Ministries of Northern Indiana, Center for the Homeless, Holy Cross Care Services, Dismas House and Reins of Life, said the connections her students make in class impact the agencies as well.
"One of the goals of a lot of these agencies is awareness and education," Neumann said. "There is a benefit that goes both ways."
Many of the agencies have developed invaluable connections with Saint Mary's through the process, Kors said.
"Many of these agencies have said that they have focused on Saint Mary's as their primary source for volunteers," she said. "Since we focus on two, three or five agencies, we are able to target places where students can be helpful."
However, while the experience has been primarily beneficial for the students involved, there is debate about whether community-based learning should be required.
Neumann said scheduling and transportation have been two obstacles in working with the program.
"If it were to be required, the logistics of placing 430 incoming students with agencies would be a nightmare," Neumann said. "In addition, lots of students schedules are so hectic that I don't feel it is my place to require them to complete service. And many students do not have transportation."
Many of the reasons a student may have a poor experience could be that they rushed to get their hours in or were exposed to awkward situations, Kors said.
Yet that does not make the experience invaluable, she emphasized.
"I've had students write me five years later and say that even though the experience upset them then, that when they look back, it has been the most important learning experience in their college careers," she said.
Renner, who currently participates in community service unrelated to the program, agrees it has been one of her most influential experiences.
"I can confidently say that this semester, I began understanding people differently," Renner wrote in her final paper for Neumann. "Every person I met, or friend I spoke to, I reminded myself that we are all fighting battles of our own.
"Everyone else's pain and frustrations are every bit as real as our own, and often times, far worse. By recognizing this truth and offering our support, we open our hearts and magnify our understanding of gratitude."
All News Stories for Friday, September 10, 1999