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Learning in the Real World

November 11, 2000

Mary Ann Travis
Michael DeMocker

Summer camp, 1997--Soft-spoken and serious, Barbara Moely is doing something that she, as an academic researcher, had never imagined herself doing: She is running a summer camp. But this summer camp is not situated on the shore of an idyllic lake where campers swim and row and sail to their hearts' content, forming friendships and singing songs around a campfire.

Woodson Summer Camp, on the Tulane campus, is a reading camp for 75 students from Woodson Middle School, one of Orleans Parish Public Schools' most disadvantaged. The Woodson summer campers do not have perfectly matched shorts and tops and extra bathing suits with their names embroidered on labels sewn in the clothing by their mothers.

The Woodson campers, who mostly live in the Guste or C.J. Peete public housing residences, come from households with an average annual income of $6,000. At Woodson camp that summer, Moely, a Tulane professor of psychology, did "service learning" for the first time. As part of the Adolescent Psychology course she taught for Tulane Summer School, she gave her college students the opportunity to work in the camp, tutoring the Woodson students as well as doing other camp activities.

In addition to their traditional coursework, the service-learning college students had to keep a journal about the camp experience, reflecting on their observations of the middle-schoolers. In the journals, they related these observations to the adolescent-development theories Moely had presented in class lectures and assigned readings.

For the students who chose to do service learning, Moely could see the academic course come to life, and the experience convinced her that college students have much to gain from service learning. "It's a natural thing to be involved with real-life children as you're learning about them," she says. "I felt the college students grew from it in many ways because they got a chance to try out their own talents and skills," she says.

Students interested in theater, for example, did drama activities at the camp--"making up commercials or telling stories of the neighborhood or acting out things they were reading." Others did music or art activities. "It was an opportunity for our students to do something beyond the minimum that they would do for a college course," says Moely.

And in moving outside the lecture hall, Moely believes, the students consolidated the concepts they were acquiring in the course. The experience also had a deep impact on Moely herself. As she notes three years--and a world of community contact--later, "It really changed my life." C.J. Peete Homes, 1996--Some 1,400 apartments make up the public housing residences known as C.J. Peete, nestled in the heart of uptown New Orleans a mere 10 or 15 blocks--give or take a few light years--from the Tulane University campus.

Barbara Moely and a number of her faculty colleagues at Tulane and Xavier are about to begin a journey into community awareness as they work with the Peete residents and the city in a unique university program known as CAP. Like most of her colleagues, Moely, who has been a faculty member at Tulane since 1972, is focused on "straight research." A developmental psychologist, she investigates how children change developmentally.

Cognitive ability stuff. If you teach children something, what do they actually learn? She looks into attitudes about school achievement, self-concept, motivation--all sorts of things that might predict success in school. She has an interest and concern about the application of the knowledge she's gained from her research. But she isn't a hands-on practitioner.

Then along came the Tulane-Xavier Campus Affiliates Program. In 1996, through the efforts of Gene D'Amour, vice president for institutional program development and government agency affairs, and others, Tulane and Xavier universities jointly received a five-year, $10-million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for CAP. (CAP is now part of the Tulane/Xavier National Center for the Urban Community, directed by Larry Powell, professor of history.)

CAP's aim is to apply the universities' resources toward improving the lives of impoverished families in New Orleans. CAP activities particularly center on the C.J. Peete housing development. Favrot Professor of Human Relations and sociologist Jim Wright headed up CAP in the beginning, and he asked Moely to join the group of faculty members involved in the initial planning.

"We'd have meetings every Wednesday down at the community center," Moely says. "Up to 30 people talking about children, families and education." It was a whole different approach in that the academics listened to the community leaders about their needs and goals rather than telling the community what to do.

Assistant professors of psychology Stacy Overstreet, Margaret Dempsey and Michael Cunningham were among the faculty members who worked with community representatives to learn about the area and plan programs. Through her involvement with CAP, Moely made contacts in the C.J. Peete community, at Woodson Middle School and in other parts of the city. And, thus, from CAP activities, service learning at Tulane was born.

"The approach of collaborating with the community continues in service learning today at Tulane," says Moely. "Community sites take the lead in developing plans for service learning and orienting students who will work with them." Service learning is a methodology that's hovered around universities since the 1960s. It involves engaging university students in community service, but is different from simple volunteer work.

In service learning, community activity is tied to academic coursework. While Tulane students have been active in the community for decades with the Community Action Council of Tulane University--CACTUS--and other organizations, these activities have been largely peripheral to the academic experience. All this has changed.

Service learning has mushroomed at Tulane since Moely taught the Adolescent Psychology class in summer 1997, which was one of only two service-learning courses that spring and summer, involving a total of 36 students. Moely now directs an expanding service-learning program that, this fall, was linked to 26 liberal arts and sciences courses with nearly 400 students enrolled.

Service-learning courses range from Moely's Educational Psychology to political science associate professor Doug Rose's Elections in America and American Political Culture, to Spanish associate professor Maureen Shea's Social Problems in Spanish American Literature, just to name a few. More Tulane faculty members have added service learning to their courses each semester since 1997.

Community sites for service learning now include schools, hospitals, environmental-activism agencies, a substance-abuse recovery residential facility, the New Orleans city planning office, election polls, off-campus and on-campus research centers and social-service agencies with phone-in help lines. Service-learning students also volunteer on campus at Upward Bound and Positive Talk, a pregnancy-prevention program for adolescent girls and boys.

Moely is a co-principal investigator for both these programs. Upward Bound has received a four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education, and Positive Talk is in its fourth year of a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The relationship between the community agencies and Tulane's service-learning program has been productive, says Moely. "Most of the agencies say, 'Send us more students.' "

Gibson Hall, Summer 1998--Scott S. Cowen is turning heads on campus as he takes the reins of the Tulane presidency. He is instituting long-range strategic planning and talking about the future and what Tulane should aspire to. One theme that has remained consistent in all his communications since coming to Tulane is a commitment to community. "We are a national institution of renown," he says in one of his first interviews. "We are uniquely qualified to add value to the community in which we live with others."

Cowen and the university administration are putting their money--or the university's--where their mouths are when it comes to service learning. Joining academic course content to community service and developing an ambitious, well-run, effective service-learning program requires more than just making a list of community agencies that need volunteers and handing it out to faculty and students.

For service learning to be truly effective, students must be oriented well and then monitored as they go into the community, and they, with the guidance of their professors, need to be able to relate their volunteer experiences to their scholarly studies. If it's done right, service learning adds a dimension to academic coursework that takes faculty and staff time and effort.

Recognizing this, Tulane has allocated the resources necessary to launch a first-rate service-learning program that is one of the most firmly tied to academics in higher education and whose community-service activities are among the most closely supervised. The Office of Service Learning, established under the auspices of the Office of Academic Affairs, was established in the summer of 1999 and housed adjacent to campus at 1332 Audubon St. Moely is the director of service learning, but she also still has her teaching and research duties as a professor of psychology.

The day-to-day running of the service-learning program primarily rests with a corps of young Tulane graduates, including Vincent Ilustre (T '98), associate director of service learning, and Amanda Buberger (N '99) and Greg Chapuis (T '00), program coordinators. The staff also includes an administrative assistant, two van drivers and an internship coordinator, Ann Winchell.

Ilustre, who is from Dallas, is the kind of highly organized and energetic person who always follows up a meeting with a phone call or whatever action is needed to get things done. He will get back to you. Ilustre decided to forego law school in order to work in service learning. "For the university that I graduated from to be involved at this scale is a great thing," he says.

For him, the most important part of service learning is the personal growth of the Tulane students. "Most of our students are upper-middle-class students, and they often never get to the point of seeing what else is out there beyond their environment," he says. By doing service-learning activities, Ilustre says, Tulane students are immersed in their expected academic learning process, but "the personal growth story is just amazing."

Members of the staff serve as liaisons with the service-learning triad: faculty, students and community agencies. They keep in close contact with service-learning students by e-mail, phone and mandatory discussion sessions. They work closely with faculty to find community sites that offer meaningful connections to the courses the professors teach. And they try hard to respond to the volunteer needs of the community agencies.

Service-learning staff members frequently survey members of all three constituencies to make sure the program is working effectively, and the responses have been overwhelmingly positive. One hundred percent of students who answered a service-learning questionnaire last year said they would recommend it to a friend. Many faculty members have repeated service learning in their courses--and more faculty want to get on board.

"I think one of our biggest assets is having vans and van drivers to drive our students to sites," says Ilustre. "Some of the sites are in neighborhoods that are unfamiliar to Uptown residents. Some are out of the way, and students don't know how to get there. And they don't want to drive themselves because of parking issues. It has made faculty members comfortable to know that their students are being driven around, and they don't have to go to the sites by themselves."

It's many irons in the fire, but Ilustre and his staff love their work. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't," says Chapuis, an English and sociology major whose hometown is St. Louis. He and Buberger are both former service learners who took Moely's Educational Psychology course. Chapuis believes the program gets "tighter" each semester. "I think we are making things better," he says. From New Haven, Conn., Buberger also majored in sociology.

She says the service-learning experience "opens students' eyes." She says students have found service learning a worthwhile way to spend their time. It gives Tulane students exposure to professionals, provides valuable work experience and may help them with career decisions. "Service learning enhances education and serves a community need," says Buberger. "Students learn how to be active and responsible citizens--and they enjoy it."

Grace House, October 2000--Kaiyti Duffy, an English and women's studies major from Chicago, sits with a 36-year-old recovering addict, helping the woman prepare for her high school equivalency examination. Duffy is a student in professor Molly Travis' Feminist Theories course; the woman wonders how in the world feminism relates to her. "I told her that she was a feminist because she was getting her life back together," Duffy says.

Experiential learning is the way to go in education, says Travis, associate professor of English and chair of the Committee for Undergraduate Education, commissioned as part of strategic planning for the university in 1998. In the committee report, submitted in spring 1999, Travis says, "We called for an expansion of service learning. It's a splendid move by the university."

In her Feminist Theories course, Travis says service learning has influenced her to choose a text on community activism and feminist politics, a text that is not purely theoretical. Her students can pick one of several community agencies in which to do their volunteer service. One of them is Grace House, a residential facility for women who are recovering substance abusers. "The rap on feminist theory is that it is too rarified and removed from the real lives of women," says Travis. "It seems a necessity to match a feminist theories course with community service."

For students like Duffy and her Grace House student, theory alone is not enough. "Theory is important," says Duffy, "but this is theory into practice. I can see this is the way it relates to life. "Students at Tulane often feel that Tulane is all there is to New Orleans," Duffy says. "But we get so much from New Orleans. We have benefited so much from the city. Service learning is a good way to use what you're learning to give back to New Orleans."

Brain-Injury Unit, Touro Infirmary, October 2000--Jeremy Ernestes, a neuroscience major from Cincinnati, is down in the dumps as he arrives at Touro Infirmary's Brain-Injury Unit. He is one of a group of students taking professor Beth Wee's Brain and Behavior course who are doing service-learning work in this locked ward filled with younger patients who have been in car accidents and older patients recovering from strokes. All have serious brain injury.

The students earn an optional fourth hour of credit in the course by spending 40 hours helping with the patients--talking, reading, playing games--and then writing a report on their observations. A few hours later, Ernestes walks out of Touro and sees the sunset. His mood has changed to one of thankfulness. "I thought, 'Wow, these people can't even walk out and see the setting sun,' " he says. "It made me want to help them even more so they can get out and enjoy life, too."
Feelings of gratitude are common among her students who work with the brain-injury patients, says Wee, an assistant professor of cell and molecular biology. Students also gain a better understanding of amnesia, other memory deficits and language and motor skills deficits. "When I talk about learning and memory and the brain in class, they have seen it. They have seen the deficits of the brain in brain-injured folks. "Students benefit, and patients benefit."

But students benefit the most when they are motivated and want to participate, so most courses make the service-learning component optional, either for an extra hour of credit for those who do participate, or substituting a substantial paper for those who do not want to. Kevin Gotham, assistant professor of sociology, has an optional service-learning component to his Urban Sociology course-with a stress on the "optional." "The best kind of service learner is enthusiastic and mature," Gotham says. "Some students, however, resent doing service learning. They don't appreciate it. Others recognize that it's important."

Gotham says there can be a down side to thrusting privileged students into a disadvantaged setting if the students are not frequently briefed and monitored. "Service learning is not a panacea to understanding society's ills," Gotham says. Students from insulated and affluent backgrounds may tend, for example, to interpret as laziness the passivity and acquiescence they observe in the disadvantaged people they encounter in service-learning settings.

"They may conclude that individual behaviors are the cause of the social problem of poverty," says Gotham. Service learning without the proper intellectual and academic understanding can reinforce class and race prejudices, says Gotham. "If service learning is not reinforced with discussions about the causes of social ills, based on the work of urban scholars, it could have quite negative results," he says.

Graham says his assertions are backed up with empirical studies of service learning and corroborated by what he's seen in the field. That's why Tulane's efforts to connect service learning to an intellectual component are so laudable, says Gotham, who particularly praises the discussion groups or "rap sessions," led by the service-learning staff. "Go beyond the description," Gotham exhorts his students. "Anybody can see the poverty at C.J. Peete. You need to understand how poverty is explained by scholars. Anyone off the street can do the volunteer work you are doing."

From a sociological viewpoint, he wants his students to be able to articulate how individual incidences of poverty are connected to public policy and public housing that affect whole groups of people. "I want them to be critical thinkers."

A longer version of this article appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of Tulanian.


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