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Connecting classes to community

Dr. Kristy Nabhan-WarrenDr. Kristy Nabhan-Warren was attending a meeting of religion scholars when she brought up the idea of service learning-incorporating community service projects into her courses at Augustana. But the discussion that followed took her by surprise. Nine of her 11 colleagues in the room, representing colleges and universities from across the country, warned her that incorporating service learning into her classes would be a disaster. They said students aren't mature enough and can't be trusted to interact with others. They said it was too risky; a negative outcome could reflect badly on her institution, or even herself. And it would be too time-consuming and take her away from her research. Nabhan-Warren listened, but never wavered. She not only trusted her students, she felt inspired by them. She went forward with plans to implement service-learning components-a way to link what students learn in class to the community in which they live-in two of her courses this past fall.

The result was something she hadn't expected. Yes, her students were challenged and transformed by the experiences, and of course those in the community benefited from the extra people power. But it was also Nabhan-Warren herself who felt undeniably energized by the simple act of leaving the classroom to connect the academics to the world.

"This is a way to keep me on my toes," she says. "In my seventh year as a professor, I've been pushed. Service learning creates spaces where faculty and students can engage outside the classroom. My conversations with students are so rich, so deep because we're talking about shared experiences. It has connected me to my students on another level."

In her 300-level Race, Religion and Ethnicity class, Nabhan-Warren organized a service-learning program to complement the ethnographic fieldwork performed by her students. During the 10-week term, students worked closely with Rock Island's Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center and a neighborhood Pentecostal church. They tutored children after school and worked with church members to refurbish the building and beautify the grounds.

"It was more than just a religion course where we learned about theories about faith," says Patrick Fish '10. "We applied those theories outside the classroom walls. We used our education for the betterment of the community. Dr. Kristy and this project challenged my faith, but more importantly have made me a better student and person. The people that I met are permanently ingrained into my memory, and I will never forget them or the experiences we shared."

Hailey Brandell '11 describes her participation in the community center's after-school program as a "reality check."

"I think many Augustana students would agree that it's easy to forget that not everyone is as fortunate as we," Brandell says. "Sometimes you begin to take our beautiful campus and academic materials for granted. Although the center is only a few minutes down 7th Avenue, it is a different world. For me, the experience showed that everyone, no matter what, can contribute a little bit of their time to help their community. Now that I've formed relationships with the kids, I will continue to volunteer at the center even though my class with Dr. Kristy is over."

In Nabhan-Warren's 300-level class on American Catholicism last fall, students studied the life of Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933. The movement promotes social justice and a sense of personal responsibility for helping the poor.

To fully appreciate Day's belief in "the God-given dignity of every human person," members of the class bought, prepared and served lunch to nearly 100 people at Café on Vine Street, one of a handful of meal sites for homeless men, women and children in the Quad Cities. Working alongside Catholic nuns, students had a chance to meet those whose strong faith has led them to a life of service-and to experience that service for themselves.

"Barriers of class, race, ethnicity and privilege are hard to break down, but service-learning projects can help work towards deconstructing differences and inequality and work towards crafting real community," Nabhan-Warren says. "The students see these projects as a way to help them balance the imbalance of power and authority in our society. We, as professors, need to open the door for them."

Nabhan-Warren believes a liberal arts college such as Augustana is the perfect environment for service learning because the small class sizes allow professors to get to know their students better and, in turn, to trust them.

Second photo from left: Dr. Kristy Nabhan-Warren helps her students prepare a meal for nearly 100 people
When students find themselves at a community center, a meal site for the homeless, a local farm or on a boat on the Mississippi, they extend their learning beyond the classroom. 

And the survey says...

Nabhan-Warren is not alone in setting up service learning opportunities at Augustana. Dr. Reuben Heine, assistant professor of geography, navigated the intricacies of water resources management by taking his class down the Mississippi River last summer. It was, he says, one of his most rewarding experiences since coming to Augustana in 2005.

For two weeks, Heine and six students traveled by boat and van down the Mississippi from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to Rock Island. In Minneapolis, the class launched the geography department's own research boat and cruised for three days and 250 miles down to LaCrosse, Wis. Lectures were held on sandbars, street corners in river towns and coffee shops.

"Along the way, our students witnessed numerous changes in the landscape as they passed through five distinct ecological and physiographic regions-including some interesting sub-regions such as boreal forests, glacial lakes, sand plains, and bog and spruce swamps," Heine says. "In all cases, the students discovered the many interwoven linkages between land use, landforms, and water quality, quantity and uses."

While in the LaCrosse area, the students conducted a survey of residents in Stoddard, Wis., to gauge their feelings about a river restoration project in the area. The results of that survey were distributed to the U.S. Geologic Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"After conducting the survey, there was a lively discussion in the van ride back to La Crosse," Heine says. "It revealed that the students' opinions differed as to whether they enjoyed the survey experience. Some said the rejections were really hard to take while others described the energy they felt while engaged in conversations with residents."

They all agreed, however, that the experience was important because it created new knowledge that could immediately be used by the agencies for the next phase of the restoration project. For example, while the opinions of the townspeople were generally favorable, one of the important findings showed that lower-income residents felt the restoration project interfered with their fishing, by producing heavier vegetation close to shore. On the other hand, for those with boats, the fishing was reported to be better.

The students shared these conclusions, and many more, in a debriefing session in La Crosse with agency officials. As a result, plans for the river restoration project now include a fishing pier to rectify the problem.

"As a teacher, I found this experience particularly rewarding as I believe that service to others gives us a better understanding of the world and can make a difference in others' lives," Heine says. "In their class reflection essays, the students, in their own way, wrote that they will never look at the Mississippi River the same way again. And many of them laid out specific plans for taking action to protect and enhance the quality of the river and the quality of life for residents who live nearby."

Beth Flynn '09 took the experience one step further. She turned the research on the townspeople's perceptions into her Senior Inquiry project. She redesigned the questionnaire and re-administered the survey during Christmas recess. Flynn also arranged for a town hall meeting to hear more from key stakeholders in the river restoration project.

One thousand patients

Farther from home, service-learning opportunities can strengthen ties with the global community as well, and help break down cultural barriers.

Dr. Darrin Good, associate professor of biology, coordinates a medical service-learning program called Operation JETS (Joining in Education Through Service). Last year, a total of 33 students-25 of whom had never been on an international study experience-traveled to Nicaragua on two separate trips. The JETS team provided care to nearly 1,000 patients ranging in age from infants to seniors.

The students not only learn clinical and diagnostic skills, but also how to interact with patients, Good says. They experience another culture and get a firsthand look at poverty in the Third World. Good noticed improvements in the students' cultural sensitivity and understanding of global health issues, especially the lack of access to basic medical care. Such real-world experiences for his students, he points out, impress admissions committees at professional schools.

"Our Nicaragua medical experiences have exceeded all of my expectations with regard to student development," Good says. "This program allows students to learn and apply medical skills in an environment that also challenges them emotionally. Judging from their trip journals and post-trip reflective essays, this was a transformative experience.

"The greatest joy for any teacher is to see your students grow, and service learning fosters a magical sort of growth."