Learning Experience

April 2, 2004

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: (504) 865-5714

The funky frame house on Audubon Street, home to the Office of Service Learning, buzzes with more activity than usual this spring.

servlearnThe staff is gearing up for the Gulf South Summit on Service Learning, Civic Engagement and Positive Youth Development, which Tulane hosts March 24-26. (See Calendar listing.)

And a new director of service learning waits in the wings. Barbara Moely, professor of psychology, who has directed the office since 1997, is retiring from the faculty on July 1, and Molly Travis, associate professor and chair of English, will take the helm of service learning at that time.

Under Moely's leadership, service learning at Tulane has grown from a Woodson Middle School summer reading camp connected to a single educational psychology class, which Moely taught, to the program today.

It involves faculty members in 18 liberal arts and sciences departments and the architecture, business and engineering schools, teaching 25 to 30 courses linked to service learning at 42 different agencies with 400 students participating every semester.

Tulane also has emerged as a national leader in service learning. So much a leader, in fact, that Tulane has received a three-year Learn and Serve America grant from the federal Corporation of National Community Service to disseminate Tulane's model of service learning to six other colleges and universities. Moely will continue as the principal investigator on the grant.

"Students want this kind of active learning," says Moely. This kind of learning is not merely sitting at a lecture and taking notes and giving it back on an exam. "Students are aware of social issues and eager to be involved in the community," she says.

Faculty members want the involvement, too, so that their students can test rarified concepts and theories in real-world situations. Moely says she is most proud of the good response service learning has received from faculty members throughout Tulane.

"It was the right time to do something like this, and people responded to it positively." Moely gives Vincent Ilustre, associate director of service learning, credit for bringing the faculty on board--and ably assisting them.

Ilustre leads a staff of six--three senior coordinators, Amanda Buberger, Rachael Steward and Cinda Clark; one project assistant, Yvette Barnett; and two van drivers, Donald Taylor and Denise Harrison. They are the point people supporting the trifecta of serving learning--faculty, students and community partners.

Illustre says, "What really distinguishes us from other service learning programs in the country is the level of support we can provide not only to the faculty but to the community partners and the students." And that support is paying off. "Tulane's image has changed in the community as a result of the programming we do," says Ilustre.

Now, community agencies come to Tulane asking for students to become involved. But when Ilustre first started six years ago, he found distrust of Tulane--and fear of abandonment--among many of the agencies. Now it's different.

"It's partnerships based on trust and openness," he says. While Travis wants to continue to enhance positive relationships with community agencies by offering development seminars to community partners along the lines of the current service-learning faculty training, she's also looking beyond New Orleans to overseas to expand service-learning opportunities internationally.

She plans to visit possible community sites in Cape Town, South Africa, when she travels there next summer to do research on a book on post-apartheid South African literature. Ever since she chaired the Committee for Undergraduate Education as part of the university's strategic planning in the late 1990s, Travis has been sold on experiential learning.

She says, "My own feeling is that it is a better way to educate." Travis has sent students from her Feminist Theories class to Grace House, a residential facility for women who are recovering substance abusers, and students have tutored the Grace House residents to help them pass high school equivalency exams, taking feminism out of the realm of theory to reality.

Other students in Travis' Persuasive Writing course, many of whom are interested in law careers, did service learning at city agencies and businesses, where they were involved in such activities as grant writing and the development of brochures and Web presentations.

That class was such a success--Travis got her highest student evaluation ratings ever--that she says, "I can't ever imagine teaching that course again without a service- learning component."

Travis was the first English professor at Tulane--and the first from a department other than sociology and psychology--to do service learning. She says she's accepted the position of service learning director because of the solid foundation built by Moely, Ilustre and the rest of the staff. She also says, "There's much more room for service learning in the humanities and fine arts. I think there's a good fit."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000