The transformative effects of community-based learning
Some college graduates can point to a class that changed their life. But how many of us have taken a class that changed the life of someone else?
This spring, Amelia Russo ’12 took “Collaborative Research in Applications of Psychology” during her final semester at Franklin & Marshall College. As part of her work for the advanced-level course, she and fellow students partnered with Project Access Lancaster County, a nonprofit organization that connects uninsured Lancaster residents with healthcare services.
“The course was a perfect fit for my two majors,” said Russo, a joint psychology and public policy major (pictured on page 3). “I can take what I’ve learned in psychology in my previous classes and apply it in the community. It’s also a good way to have real-world experience with guidance from a professor.”
The students worked with patients to reduce unnecessary emergency-room visits, improve the results of these visits and improve overall health. They designed a journal for patients to maintain during treatment to keep track of their care. After finding that many patients had trouble completing a health survey, they revised the survey to make it less confusing. Finally, they did research on best practices in improving patient outcomes and developed recommendations for a patient navigator, a grant-funded position that Project Access Lancaster County will fill next year.
It’s all part of community-based learning (CBL), which blends what students learn in class with hands-on experiences.
“What’s exciting about community-based learning is that it allows students to solve real-world problems, which are typically much more challenging than those they face in the classroom,” said Marcie Penner-Wilger, the visiting assistant professor of psychology who taught Russo’s class. “They need to understand the social context and the various stakeholders involved. They need to assess available resources and come up with a solution that’s implementable.”
Projects in Penner-Wilger’s class take a variety of forms but generally involve applying psychology to problems in health, education or public policy. Students work in partnership with local community groups in selecting a problem to address, and they complete a project that results in something tangible for the partner group. Students start developing expertise by doing cross disciplinary reading related to their project. They learn about designing and evaluating interventions, and how to develop project plans and timelines. They also learn how to communicate scientific concepts to the non-scientific audiences they typically work with.
One student group created a program to help children with autism recognize emotions in facial expressions. Another group developed a research-based program to improve tutor training and outcomes for non-native English learners. And another designed a mentoring program to help first-generation students get into and complete college.
The Three Rs: Reciprocity, Rigor and Reflection
CBL began to emerge on college campuses more than two decades ago. But it has now become an established teaching method, said Susan Dicklitch, professor of government and associate dean of the College. Dicklitch is a nationally recognized proponent of CBL.
The approach is based on three principles: reciprocity, rigor and reflection. “In terms of reciprocity, both students and the community must benefit,” she said. “In terms rigor, for it to become mainstream, it has to be academically rigorous.
“And reflection is where the connection is made between theory and practice,” she concluded. Studies show that journal writing is a vital component of CBL, a key way of synthesizing field experience with course material.
CBL activities have increased steadily, according to Campus Compact, a coalition of 1,100 institutions that promotes civic engagement. During the 2009–2010 academic year, 35 percent of students enrolled at member schools participated in CBL and related activities. (F&M is a Campus Compact member.)
Numerous studies point to benefits for students who participate in CBL. A 2000 study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles collected data on 22,000 college students during a four-year period. Thirty percent participated in CBL, while an additional 47 percent were involved in unrelated service.
The researchers found that CBL had a positive impact on outcomes such as academic performance, personal values, self-efficacy and leadership. For instance, it facilitated an increased sense of personal efficacy, awareness of personal values and engagement in the classroom. Both students and faculty developed a greater sense of civic responsibility.
The study also showed that community service performed in the context of coursework, where activities were related to classroom study and students discussed their experiences, offered distinctive benefits compared with independent volunteer work. Among those benefits were improved critical thinking and higher grade point averages.
Dicklitch emphasized that CBL isn’t the same as volunteer work. “The key aspect of community-based learning is that students make the connection between the theory in the classroom and the experience in the field,” she said. “They can learn about something, and then they can see it in action.”
That’s why F&M prefers the term “community-based learning,” while other schools refer to it as “service learning.” The focus is on students both contributing to and learning from the community.
In fact, CBL is a perfect fit for a college like F&M, Dicklitch said. “It would be difficult to implement in a class of 300 students. But it works very well in a class of 15 or 20.”
Key to fostering that engagement are high-quality CBL opportunities. Identifying those opportunities is the role of F&M’s Ware Institute for Civic Engagement, which Dicklitch directs. The institute also provides workshops for faculty and logistical support to ensure that CBL projects are successful.
“The most empowering moment in my life was when I realized that my ability to conduct research and analyze data had helped to grant someone safe haven in the United States,” said Akbar Hossain ’13.
In fall 2011, Hossain took Dicklitch’s “Human Rights, Human Wrongs” course. The class covers theory and law around human rights. Dicklitch has also team-taught the course with an immigration attorney. Students learn about international and domestic law and the legal basis of political asylum.
They also are assigned in teams of two to work with an asylum seeker and with a pro bono immigration lawyer or an attorney from the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center (PIRC). If they determine that the asylum seeker would face persecution if deported, they then help prepare an affidavit to substantiate that claim. They also compile an evidentiary packet that the lawyer will use to argue the case.
Hossain and Mona Lotfipour ’12 were assigned to work with Aadam (not his real name), a refugee from the Darfur region of Sudan.
In 2004, when Aadam was 15, his mother sent him to a city where she thought he would be safe from the escalating violence of the Darfur Conflict. But once there, he was thrown in jail, where he was tortured.
Aadam eventually escaped and found his way to Turkey, where the U.S. government offered him refugee status. He arrived in the United States in 2006, when he was 17, and was placed in foster care.
When Aadam was 18 he was convicted on a minor drug violation and sentenced to nine months’ probation. But under U.S. law, a refugee who breaks the law can be deported. More than a year later, immigration officials arrested him and began eportation proceedings.
Aadam was held in York County Prison in York, Pa. The prison houses some 1,700 inmates awaiting trial or serving sentences of up to five years. It also leases about 800 beds to the Department of Homeland Security for immigration detainees.
If Aadam didn’t want to be sent back to Darfur, he would have to prove that he faced persecution there. But asylum seekers aren’t granted court-appointed legal representation. In fact, about two-thirds of asylum seekers don’t have a lawyer when they appear in court, according to Dicklitch. Pro bono attorneys often can’t take on such cases because they lack the resources for the work involved, especially the background research.
That’s where F&M students come in. Hossain and Lotfipour worked with a PIRC attorney, who determined that Aadam’s story was credible. Then they compiled a 376-page evidentiary packet, which the attorney used to successfully argue Aadam’s case. The students were in the courtroom when the judge granted Aadam asylum.
Between 2000 and 2011, F&M students were involved in 66 immigration cases. They won asylum for 26. Last year U.S.News & World Report listed “Human Rights, Human Wrongs” No. 6 among “10 College Classes That Impact the Outside World.”
“Students invariably tell me that this has been a transformative experience,” Dicklitch said. “It’s absolutely empowering to know they can have a profound effect on someone at this stage in their life. It’s something that will have a lifelong impact.”
Russo did CBL work in her final semester of college. But CBL is also available to first-year students such as Marissa Bendit ’15. This spring Bendit took “Intro to American Studies,” a course that covers U.S. immigration history and includes a CBL component. She was drawn to the class in part because her mother is a naturalized U.S. citizen from South Africa.
Bendit and fellow students taught English to non-native speakers at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Lancaster. Many of the people they worked with were Nepalese immigrants who wanted to learn English to take their U.S. citizenship test. Once a week, each student worked with a small group of English learners on vocabulary and other language skills.
The project presented challenges, such as how to communicate with people who didn’t speak much English and in some cases were two generations older. “We’re all between 18 and 20 years old, and we’re teaching adults,” Bendit said. “That’s a different dynamic than we’re used to.”
The fieldwork also illuminated the coursework. “We learned the concepts behind immigration and citizenship in class,” she said. “But seeing people go through the process allows you to understand it in a different way.” Other students in the class helped immigrants study for their citizenship test through a program offered at Lancaster’s J.P. McCaskey High School.
The goal of community-based learning is to increase students’ engagement with the topic and demonstrate a real-world application of what we read and discuss in class,” said Alison Kibler, who taught the American Studies course. Kibler is department chair and associate professor of American studies and women’s and gender studies.
“In a class of 25 students, each person may be there for a different reason,” she said. “But the community-based learning component is what they all most look forward to. It’s what draws them into the readings and into discussions.”
CBL courses have been offered at F&M for more than a decade. But today they have become “institutionalized as a valid pedagogy,” Dicklitch said. In fact, 13 CBL courses were offered this spring, the most ever in one semester.
“The two words students consistently use to describe their community-based learning experiences are ‘inspirational’ and ‘empowering,’” Penner-Wilger said. “They love being able to translate their knowledge into tangible results that directly help others.” She also said that “despite my extremely high expectations for them, they consistently astound me with the amount and the high level of work they do.”
“F&M students clearly are in love with community-based learning,” Dicklitch said. “When they get a taste of applying theory in the real world, they want to do more of it. And they start pushing for more classes that give them that opportunity.”
Students of CBL seem to confirm that analysis. “Community-based learning lets you take the skills you’ve gained at F&M and apply them in a way that’s relevant,” Russo said. “It’s a great foundation for learning how to be a good citizen. It’s really the culmination of everything we’ve learned at F&M.”
A few years ago, Akbar Hossain ’13 wouldn’t have predicted he would take Professor Susan Dicklitch’s “Human Rights, Human Wrongs” course and help an asylum seeker gain safe haven. But he might seem destined to such an accomplishment.
Hossain was born in Bangladesh and spent his early childhood in Saudi Arabia after his father found work there. When he was 9, he and his family moved to the United States through the Department of State’s lottery-style Diversity Visa Program.
When the Hossains arrived in New York, on Sept. 9, 2001, they were stranded at the airport by an unscrupulous immigration facilitator. They eventually ended up in Norristown, Pa., where Hossain’s father worked three minimum-wage jobs before passing away unexpectedly in 2004. In eighth grade Hossain took a part-time job to help support his family.
He planned to finish school, get a full-time job and perhaps take classes at Montgomery County Community College. But then he participated in F&M’s Collegiate Leadership Summit, a program for high school students with diverse backgrounds and leadership skills. Through the program he received a full-tuition scholarship to the College.
The government major has been an active member of th student body. He has been an orientation planning director, a member of the John Marshall Pre-Law Honor Society, co-founder of the Muslim Student Association, and a site coordinator for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, a student-run tax-preparation service for low-income Lancaster residents. He also was president of Brooks College House for the past academic year.
In April Hossain was awarded the highly competitive Harry S. Truman Scholarship, which provides $30,000 toward graduate studies for students who plan a career in public service. He was F&M’s first recipient of the prestigious award.
Hossain’s goal is to become an attorney and work on “reforming U.S. immigration law.” In fact, the policy proposal he submitted for the Truman Scholarship was based on his work in the “Human Rights, Human Wrongs” course.
Hossain speaks about community-based learning with palpable enthusiasm. “The biggest benefit is that you’re learning while you’re doing,” he said. “We could learn things in class and then put that knowledge into action. The implications of that are huge.”
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