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University integrates service into courses

Katie Wagner | Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The University offered 139 community-based learning classes in the 2004-05 school year, an increase by 18 in just two years, according to the Center for Social Concerns (CSC).Notre Dame’s community-based learning courses (CBLs) are often service-based, meaning they require students to engage in some form of meaningful service to the community to receive credit. Others involve direct contact with members of the community through dialogue, participation, analysis and observation of particular community activities.At least 41 percent of students at Notre Dame have participated in one or more CBL courses by the time they graduate, according to the CSC.The School of Architecture, Law School, Mendoza College of Business, College of Science and First Year of Studies all offer CBL courses. The College of Arts and Letters offers the most – 68 different courses this year alone – with the majority under the theology department. According to U.S. News & World Report’s 2004 edition of America’s Best Colleges, Notre Dame ranks among the top 20 schools in America to offer “stellar examples” of service-learning courses. Forty-five percent of students from other institutions said that the service-learning component of these types of classes enhanced their understanding of course material, compared to 57 percent of Notre Dame students, according to Research Report 5 by the CSC. Ed Kelly has been teaching two sections of CBL First Year Composition (FYC) since the program’s inception five years ago. These specific courses require students to perform 15 to 20 hours of service. About 10 percent of each freshman class chooses to take a community-based learning section of FYC, Kelly said. “I think what distinguishes the CBL classes is that they commit students to really get involved with other people,” said Kelly, whose FYC sections are entitled “Bridging the Gap: Community” and “The Rhetoric of Idealism.””The hope is that students get out to do their service with their eyes open to think about the world the way it is and the way it could be,” Kelly said. “I’m trying to suggest that here are some ideals to aspire to. Many of the readings are from people who are calling us to be better than we are.”Kelly said the first thing he does in his classes is “try to develop a sense of community in his classroom.”Like other FYC students, those in a CBL section are required to write three papers. However, the final paper for these classes differs in that it is reflective and analytical rather than research-based.”In their papers there’s a certain kind of transparency that is evident,” said Kelly. “Kids for the most part are very honest. It manifests itself if you haven’t really invested yourself or engaged yourself [in the service].”Sophomore Ashley Brawn is currently finishing up her first experience with a CBL course. The three-credit theology course, “Vocation and Leadership in Catholic Social Teaching,” requires students to participate in at least two hours of community service a week. Brawn tutors at La Casa de Amistad, where she had volunteered for the past two semesters.”This semester my service has been most meaningful,” Brawn said. “I feel like I’ve really been able to get more involved in it, really making an effort to know the kids, and really immerse myself in the whole experience.”Brawn said students in her class are encouraged to stay at the same site for all of their service hours, “so that you can see the development, so you can grow with the site, so you are less removed from it.”Like regular University courses, Brawn’s class meets twice a week for 75 minutes and involves writing and reading assignments. She said the class specifically focuses on different vocational figures and is heavily discussion- based. Brawn said while the workload can be heavy, it does not discourage her from wanting to continue to do the service hours.”It’s a little bit more of a commitment than a normal theology class, but I think it’s worth it,” Brawn said. “I don’t consider doing service as doing class work. I think most people really enjoy going to the sites.”The CSC also works with various academic departments to hold Social Concerns immersion seminars, in which students travel to a different part of the county or in some cases outside of the United States to perform service and learn about these communities. These one-credit courses are usually offered during breaks, including summer vacation, and involve reading about and discussing social issues from several perspectives, studying Catholic social tradition and actively working to build a learning community. Students usually pay between $40 and $200 to participate in these seminars, with international programs being more costly.Associate Director of the Center for Social Concerns Mary Beckman said Notre Dame’s projects are unique because of alum support and involvement in details like finding places for students to live.”It’s likely that Notre Dame has more students across the country engaging in community-based learning than any college or University in the United States,” she said.Last semester, junior Caitlyn Mooney was one of approximately 350 students this year to have participated in the Appalachia seminar, or Theology 361. Her course involved attending lectures, writing three short papers and traveling to a part of Appalachia in Tennessee to improve the living conditions for its residents with five other students.”You learn useful information before you go, just so you understand the situation and where you are going better,” Mooney said. “The actual trip was the best part.”Mooney, a science pre-professional major, said the experience means more than just a class.”What you take away from it is more memorable than for other classes,” she said.A study done by Campus Compact in 2001 indicated that other universities that have these kinds of courses typically offer about 27 per year.