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Beyond the classroom, into the community

Illustration by Kristen Cleghorn
Illustration by Kristen Cleghorn Buy this photo

By Melanie Kruvelis, Editorial Page Editor
Published February 11, 2013

LSA senior Emily Rheaume heard about Project Outreach at just the right time.

“I was a sophomore — I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” she said. “But I ended up taking the class that shaped my future.”

Rheaume, now a senior in the International Studies Program, hopes to study public health after she graduates this May, focusing on maternal and child health. Rheaume said after taking Project Outreach, a psychology course that combines lecture with community service, she realized what she wanted to do post-undergrad — and possibly, the rest of her life.

“When a friend told me about Project Outreach, I still wasn’t sure what I was doing here,” Rheaume said. “But I could tell that class sounded different.”

In Project Outreach, students split in-class hours with fieldwork around the Ann Arbor area. From spending time in juvenile detention centers to working with ESL preschoolers, students break out of the lecture hall and dive right into the community, giving them a whole new classroom experience.

Rheaume, who was placed in the University of Michigan Health System’s childcare center, said working with three to five year olds — especially those from international families — put her developmental psychology knowledge to the test.

“There’s only so much you can learn in the classroom,” Rheaume said. “Some of the most important lessons I learned happened right out there — out in the community.”

Reaching out

Project Outreach — or Psychology 211, as it’s listed in the course guide — is one of more than 60 service-learning classes taught at the University. LSA Prof. Ian Robinson, the faculty sponsor for the Sociology Department’s Project Community course, says these courses are, to some extent, an offshoot of the famed campus activism of the 1960s.

“In the mid-60s, a lot of students were heading down south to engage in the civil rights movement,” Robinson said. “When they came back to Michigan, they wanted to continue what had been a transformative part of their lives.”

Many of these students pushed for independent studies, hoping to find a way to integrate activism into their class schedule. In 1975, Prof. Emeritus Mark Chesler, one of the University’s leading experts on social justice, founded Project Community, a course that bridges the gap between academia and the ever-elusive “real world.” Today, with four areas of interest and more than 150 students enrolled each semester, not to mention 20 to 30 Peer Facilitators, Project Community has grown into one of the largest service-oriented courses at the University.

Just like the other service-learning classes taught on campus, Project Community is supported by the Ginsberg Center, a branch of the University’s division of student affairs. The center, which focuses on expanding community service-learning on campus, supports some 3,000 students each year through its courses. Dave Waterhouse, the director of student initiatives at the Ginsberg Center, says that number is much higher when you account for the support the center gives to student organizations across campus.

“It’s hard to estimate just how many students we reach each year,” Waterhouse said. “But we do know that by the time they graduate, more than 80 percent of Michigan students have had a significant service-learning experience.”

Stacked against national averages, these statistics are impressive. In 2010, about 26 percent of college students in the United States volunteered in some capacity. Still, Robinson has noticed a slight drop in student interest in community service, which he chalks up to growing economic pressures.

“Students today are more strapped for time,” Robinson said. “You’ve got kids taking on part-time jobs, which have gone from 10 hours to 20 hours a week. When you’re balancing rising tuition cost, it can be hard to find the time to volunteer.”

Rheaume agreed.

“From the 4 required on-site hours a week, to the lectures, to the discussion, not to mention the assignments — these classes can be a lot of work.”

“Since they’re out of the classroom, a lot of people sign up for these classes thinking they’ll be easy,” Robinson added. “But the fact is, students might be putting more time into this class than any other at the University.”

And when it comes to actually going out to these communities, students and faculty alike realize these classes aren’t exactly a cakewalk.

“It’s a challenge, you know — going out into a community where you don’t understand someone, and they don’t understand you,” said Carole Lapidos, program director for “It’s Great to Be a Girl,” a female-oriented mentorship class sponsored by the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives that pairs Michigan undergrads — or Femtors — with middle school students. “But we really work on preparing our Femtors for their experience, because more often than not, it’s a lot more difficult than they imagine.”

Gearing students up for community engagement isn’t as simple as preparing them for an exam, Waterhouse said. According to Waterhouse, the Ginsberg Center spends a lot of time with students, training them for whatever they might face in their community service.

“We’re not here to go in and save anybody,” Waterhouse said. “Our students get as much out of these experience as anyone else, and it’s important they understand the ins and outs of the community they’re about to enter.”

Lapidos echoed Waterhouse’s sentiments. “IGTBAG doesn’t focus on reaching one particular population. We encourage our Femtors to focus on what they wished they heard in middle school — not just the differences they see in each community.”

Going forward

Though the University currently has no plans to make volunteer service a requirement to graduate, Waterhouse says service-learning experiences will be a priority for administrators going forward.

“Classes with community service components are a particular emphasis under the Third Century Initiative,” Waterhouse said. The initiative, a five-year, $50-million investment in action-based learning, was introduced by University President Mary Sue Coleman in 2011. Focusing on entrepreneurship, study abroad expansion and service-learning, Waterhouse says renewed administrative interest in community service will help expand the reach of the Ginsberg Center.

“Interest in our programs is growing,” Waterhouse said. “Students and faculty are seeing tangible results from our services.”

Some students want to see more of a commitment to community service from the University by adding it as a requirement to graduation similar to LSA’s distribution requirement. Today, the Psychology Department is the only department that requires community service in order to graduate.

“The University should absolutely require community service,” Rheaume said. “You can’t just be an academic when you come here.”

Rheaume paused. “A lecture hall isn’t enough,” she said. “You need to go out and get your hands dirty.”

Robinson cautioned of the challenges that surround organizing these classes as a requirement.

“Setting up the programs is a huge time (commitment),” Robinson said, mentioning the difficulties in coordinating not only with students, GSIs and peer facilitators, but also community organizations. “These classes pay off in the long run. But they don’t come without a serious investment.”