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'Service Becomes a Laboratory Experience'

November 2012 | by Jane Kettering


Service as part of the St. Ambrose curriculum typically happens without fanfare. Trying to explain it is like pulling on a string that just keeps playing out.

In some courses-a student learning community with a service theme, for instance-the central lesson is service itself.

In majors such as speech-language pathology, nursing, social work, occupational therapy and physical therapy, service is part of the practical learning process.

Less obvious examples of service incorporated into the curriculum, however, are no less impactful and, in some ways, more instructional. Like when engineering students enlist can-do imagination to help an autistic Brazilian teen. Or when a local non-profit organization benefits from work provided by a business class.

"Service learning has become more of an academic exercise than just part of the extracurricular programs," University Chaplain Rev. Charles Adam '82 said of the ongoing growth of service across the curriculum. "Service becomes kind of a laboratory experience."

Learning Through Lydia

Just blocks from the St. Ambrose campus stands the Lydia Home Association.

Lydia-Quad Cities is a neighborhood, faith-based organization that provides after-school and summer programs, temporary home placements for the children of families in crisis and neighborhood ministry and outreach.

St. Ambrose students increasingly are helping Lydia fulfill its mission, and they are learning and earning classroom credits in the process.

Lydia's afterschool facility is comfortably cluttered. It has the feel of one of those places where everyone can belong, where children can be a little messy. Recently, Director Joyce Klopp looked around with a tender but proprietary air as she talked about her 20-year ministry at Lydia and the influx of St. Ambrose student helpers over the past several years.

"On a recent afternoon one of my former ‘kids'-a young adult now-stopped by," Klopp said. "She was in very bad shape and needed my undivided attention. I knew St. Ambrose students were tutoring in the afterschool program, and that helped me have the time to give my best to this young lady."

Students from all three St. Ambrose colleges-the College of Business, the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Health and Human Services-currently are serving at Lydia. This wasn't planned, although it's not surprising.

Some are members of a service-themed student learning community. These first-year and transfer students are taking the same general education courses, led by English Professor Owen Rogal, Women's Studies Director Katy Strzepek and New Student Seminar Instructor Jennifer Tuite.

The students' participation started as part of their Urban Plunge experience, with weeding, cleaning, painting and working with children. During the semester, each learning community member has a Lydia child pen pal, performs individual service time at Lydia, and will join Lydia children at the semester-end party with pizza and a basketball clinic on campus.

Several students in an interpersonal communications class also are choosing to serve at Lydia. Marianne Leonardi, an assistant professor of communication, requires each class member to complete at least 12 hours of service interacting with children, the elderly or the homeless. Throughout the semester, they study intra- and interpersonal communication processes, perception, verbal and nonverbal clues, and transactional style at their service site.

"I have them blog ahead of time about their assumptions and any stereotypes they hold about the people they'll be serving," Leonardi said.

As their service unfolds, the students explore the impact of perception on interactions. "It's a great way to apply concepts from class," Leonardi said. "And some take the time to really deconstruct where their perceptions come from, how they could change them, how they would interact differently in the future."

Leonardi's communications students are involved in the Lydia afterschool program, Friday night neighborhood cookouts and also do babysitting for a single mom who is going back to school.

Klopp said Lydia also receives program assistance from interns from the Master of Social Work and Master of Speech-Language Pathology students. "They are providing an invaluable service to our children and families," she said.

A Place 2 Learn

Across the Mississippi River in Rock Island, Ill., theplace2b recently opened as a daytime drop-in center, serving homeless, displaced and at-risk teens.

The organization has benefited from St. Ambrose Social Work and Women's Studies interns, along with wellness presentations by SAU Master of Occupational Therapy students.

This year, students in Professor Ann Preston's communication campaigns course are working to develop a PR campaign and materials for their "client." Preston makes such hands-on service work a part of her class each semester.

"The value for students is twofold," she said. "The obvious one is that it gives them professional experience at the pace of the student learning experience. Students get great portfolio items and demonstrate the ability to make decisions based on quantitative data."

Just as important, Preston said, "They get glimpses into lives not quite like their own. Different kinds of people, and different types of situations people live with, things most of our students simply don't know about."

Preston described her students' reactions as being extraordinarily mature and empathetic. "They really do learn how to put themselves in someone else's shoes and gain a depth of perception," she said. "That's pretty exciting."

Setting A Long-term Course

The wide range of service merged into the curriculum at St. Ambrose also includes:

  • Classes in the MBA and MOL programs that incorporate a full day of service at several Quad Cities non-profit sites as a means of learning and enhancing team-building skills.
  • Women's studies majors who assist agencies with public relations, grant writing and developing policy related to domestic violence.
  • Students in a psychology course who assist the SAFER Foundation in counseling youth who have been incarcerated or involved with the criminal justice system. 
  • Occupational therapy students who teach basic living skills to refugees from Africa. 
  • And last spring, engineering students designed two vests for a young, autistic Brazilian. The tight squeeze of the compression vest, along with the stimulation of the highly tactile one, proved soothing to the 15-year-old boy, who the SAU students met when they delivered the vests while on a Study Abroad trip to Brazil.

That all of these experiences can provide lessons that resonate for a lifetime is obvious beyond the campus and even the greater Quad Cities community.

"I see the students not just doing a good deed, but setting a course for the long term," said Lydia's director, Klopp. "The question is, ‘Are you willing to go outside your life?' The power of one person is far more than what you see."

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