From Classroom to Community Engagement: Exploring avenues to student growth through grassroots immersions.
College educators explored bests practices for engaging students in community projects that advance aspects of justice and inclusivity, during a two-day November symposium at Haverford. Students participating in projects provide help for grassroots organizations, while gaining hand-on experience in helping to address real-world problems.
How can academic institutions support students who want to work with the outside world, while building their skill sets, helping vulnerable communities, and expanding global understanding?
Scores of academic administrators, faculty, and staff met at Haverford College in early November to explore ways that colleges and universities can do just that.
During a two-day symposium organized by Haverford and the Community-Based Global Learning Collaborative, a network of educational institutions and community organizations, participants shared practices on how to more effectively engage students on community projects that advance aspects of justice and inclusivity.
“We are committed to the necessity of preparing our students to live in a world which, though politically divided, has become inextricably interconnected and united,” said Eric Hartman, Executive Director of the College’s Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, citing a collective statement written by the Haverford College community in 2000. “Global issues are, fundamentally, local issues.”
Attendees heard presentations from programs operating in partnership with colleges and universities across the country that are tackling such diverse challenges as developing computer literacy among refugees, cultivating youth leadership, and preserving Puerto Rican culture in North Philadelphia.
One of several collaborations supported by Haverford’s CPGC is with the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia (NSM). Haverford students working with the grassroots immigrant activist organization have helped develop digital skills among Spanish-speaking migrants. In return, Haverforians have sharpened their proficiency in Spanish through immersive interactions with native speakers.
“This is a different way of fulfilling the language requirement utilizing a different pedagogy rather than following a professor in a classroom,” said Haverford Spanish professor Lina Martinez, who co-founded Haverford’s partnership with NSM in 2020.
During a Friday morning session, a representative of the Philadelphia-based Norris Square Neighborhood Project told listeners how they collaborate with Drexel University students and faculty to preserve Puerto Rican culture in Philadelphia.
The 50 year-old community organization has programs that teach arts, culture, entrepreneurship, and work-ready skills to youth. Children can attend multiple times per week and rotate topics that include cooking, sex education, healthy relationships, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy. Norris Square also maintains six community gardens where participants learn to raise vegetables common to Puerto Rican cuisine.
Drexel’s Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Steve Vásquez Dolph shared how the Spanish course he teaches in partnership with Norris square, “brings students into immediate contact with food security projects through close, hand-to-hand work alongside expert practitioners.”
“Students are usually taught in higher education to prioritize a certain kind of knowledge presented through journals and books, but don’t have a lot of contact with how knowledge is curated by the people who have actual lived experience with issues we care about,” Dolph said.
But building relationships between students and community programs involves overcoming challenges, such as finding ways for students to juggle community-engaged learning while also making time for classes, team sports, socializing, and other aspects of college life. Because a quarter of college students graduate each year - collaborating organizations must expend resources toward training new participants who may be gone within a few months.
“One of the challenges we face is consistency in student preparation, quality of engagement, and opportunity for reflection,” said Amy M. Johnson, Assistant Provost for Experiential Education and Undergraduate Affairs at Vanderbilt University.
Attendees at the Friday morning session articulated some of the challenges to implementing individual programs, and brainstormed over how they might be overcome.
For example, one attendee suggested that students who feel they have too much classwork to engage meaningfully with community organizations might be more willing if participation resulted in extra course credits.
That is an approach taken at Vanderbilt University, which makes involvement in the University’s “Immersion Vanderbilt” program a degree requirement. Students may opt to teach nutritional health in Nashville public schools, help families navigate various food security programs, or work through other community partnerships.
One of the implicit challenges taken up by participants is connecting local and international experiences, to support student and faculty understanding of global issues and global citizenship. Afternoon sessions focused on a Haverford linguistics partnership in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a multi-institutional collaboration supporting a human rights archive in Guatemala. Johnson said her interaction with other participants at the two-day gathering offered her a chance to expand the way she thinks of her own programs.
“The Collaborative’s symposium was an excellent opportunity,” she said “To connect with colleagues, discuss new ideas, and collectively think about how to overcome or address challenges.”