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Academics Meets Real Life in Service Learning

by Sharon Stewart
USC students in Biology 150, The Nature of Human Health and Disease, team-teach concepts learned in their class to a fourth-grade class at St. Vincent’s School. From left, they are Pauline Kim, Loren Chidoni, Meredith Herrick and Roselynn Kenny.

Some of the biggest beneficiaries of USC’s many community outreach programs are the university students who participate in them.

Just ask USC alumna Odalis Suarez, who, as a junior was nominated to receive the university’s Extraordinary Community Service Award.

“My experience at USC made me the person I am today,” Suarez said of the years she served as a volunteer for USC’s Joint Educational Project. “Academically speaking, working as a volunteer in the community helped me apply some of the ideas I learned in the classroom. That interaction between academia and reality creates an incredibly rich educational experience.”

Suarez, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and Spanish, graduated from USC in 1982. After 12 years in private practice as a lawyer, Suarez recently launched her first bid for public office as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.

But Suarez, who was 3 years old when her family immigrated to the United States from Cuba, is still passionate about volunteerism.

“It’s not just that I feel I have a responsibility to my community,” Suarez said of the hundreds of hours she donates each year to domestic violence programs and court mediation programs. “It’s that I have a responsibility to myself because I am a part of the community.”

Suarez’s experiences at USC are a good example of service learning, said JEP Executive Director Dick Cone.

“The central question is, can we use service to deepen the intellectual development of students?” Cone said of an academic approach that helped earn USC the Time/Princeton Review “College of the Year” award for 2000. “Academic rigor is in creased when service is used as a supplement and is integrated into the course. It really helps deepen our understanding of sociology or education or business or any other discipline being studied.”

Service learning, in fact, allows professors, administrators, staff and students to explore and improve the functioning of one of the most complex and exciting urban environments in the world, thereby accomplishing one of the university’s strategic goals, Cone said.

For instance, when the 24th Street Theatre, located north of the University Park Campus, decided to remodel its lobby, architect Ken Kurose’s fourth-year architecture students came up with a design that was a hit with the theater’s adminstrators. And psychology students in professor JoAnn Farver’s Issues in Child Development and Social Policy class receive real-world training at area clinics and social service agencies.

In an article announcing USC’s selection as “College of the Year,” Time/Princeton Review noted that “more than half of USC’s 15,000 undergraduates volunteer in the community, and 1,700 undertake service projects as part of the curriculum.” Time/Princeton Review editors praised USC for having “the most ambitious social-outreach program of any private university in the nation.”

The article didn’t, however, tell the behind-the-scenes story about the ongoing effort to expand service learning and volunteer programs that can serve as models for other organizations and institutions around the country.

“We want to create an atmosphere on campus where students realize that service is part of their education, whether that service is strictly volunteer, service learning or work study,” said JEP director Tammara Anderson. “What’s unique about USC is that we have service experiences that not only offer students a way to give back to the community, but also further their own education and personal development.”

To that end, about six years ago a small group of people – including Cone, Anderson, Judith Biggs Garbuio, assistant dean, director of Leadership Service and Scholars; Michelle Blanchette, director of USC’s Volunteer Center; and Sam Mark, assistant vice president, Civic and Community Relations – began holding brown bag lunch meetings once a month.

The group, which calls itself the Volunteer Collaborative, is still having lunches – and it has grown. “We usually have one thing that is the focus of the agenda,” said Cone. “For instance, last month we decided to talk about the incoming freshman class and what we must do to be ready for the increased interest in service and volunteerism caused by the Time magazine award.”

Representatives from External Relations, the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Student Affairs, CCR, JEP, the Office of Leadership, Service and Scholars and the Volunteer Center are the core of the collaborative. Other academic units, administrative divisions and departments that are involved have included the USC Law School, the School of Social Work, Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, and the Student Senate.

“You have a group of people who are very dedicated, committed and passionate about this whole thing,” Anderson said. “It’s people who want to get things done.”

The collaborative’s list of accomplishments over five years includes:

• Sponsorship of the annual Community Service Banquet. This volunteer recognition event unites neighborhood residents, student volunteers and university personnel. This year’s banquet will be held April 12 at Town and Gown.

• Creation of Community Action Short-term Team (CAST). Run out of the Volunteer Center, this program matches volunteers with community-based agencies or schools that are seeking assistance for short-term projects

• Creation of Friends and Neighbors Day. This community beautification project for one weekend in the fall and one in the spring introduces new USC students to volunteerism.

• The Intersession Enrichment Program. This after-school enrichment program received its first Good Neighbors grant after it was sponsored by the Volunteer Collaborative.

But the collaborative’s biggest accomplishment, as far as CCR’s Mark is concerned, is the role it played in helping the Volunteer Center transform itself from a volunteer group with two part-time student employees to a professional center with a director and 20 part-time workers.

“I don’t think the Volunteer Center would have grown without the collaborative,” Mark said. “I have a feeling that our collaborative, which includes many different units and departments, is fairly unique. I don’t know of any other university where there is this type of cooperation tying together community service, learning and volunteerism.”

Volunteer Center director Blanchette agreed.

“The Volunteer Center really tries to use the Volunteer Collaborative as its advisory board,” Blanchette said. “The collaborative is made up of so many knowledgeable people who are passionate about serving their communities in a multitude of ways.”

Also unusual is the collaborative members’ willingness to honestly evaluate each other’s programs, putting aside feelings of territoriality.

“It’s about networking,” JEP’s Cone said. “Once a month we get together with people who are doing similar work and reflect on what we are doing, why we are doing it and how well we are doing it. It has forced us to stop just a little bit and think. It has helped all of us professionally.”