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Saint Mary’s course promotes learning by doing

Caitlin Housley | Friday, September 24, 2010

Learning through doing, is the goal of one of Saint Mary’s public communication courses.

Saint Mary’s communication professor, Dr. Terri Russ and many public communication students were honored Tuesday with the Volunteer of the Year award from the Center for the Homeless in South Bend.

The award honored students who devoted their time to teaching the Center’s guests the importance of public speech. The course, which has been offered for three semesters at the College, is not a typical lecture class. Instead, the students become the teacher and apply their learning to real world situations.

Russ was the brain behind the idea of sending students into the South Bend community. She said she is a strong advocate of hands-on learning and wanted to develop something beyond the lecture-style used in the classroom.

“I thought I would privilege the ‘public’ part of public communication and actually take the class into the public,” Russ said.

She also wanted to prove to her students that youth does not restrict them from making a difference in the community.

“We have an obligation as citizens to give to the community in any way we can,” she said, “As little as an hour a week can have a tremendous impact on the world.”

The class is devoted to helping guests tell their own personal story by enhancing the guests’ communication skills. At the end of the semester, Russ said the class assembles a narrative of the guests’ stories, and the guests will present their own speech about their lives.

Senior Katrina Mesina said she went into the class with her own personal aspirations.

“Identity is such a big part of who a person is, and sometimes, that can be lost,” Mesina said. “We wanted to restore people’s self-images and we did so by working one on one with our guests to help them form [these] speeches about their lives.”

The class worked with a number of different age groups including small children and mothers.

Senior Emily Treat worked with Club PS, a club devoted to educating the children of the Center. Treat said it is important for children, not just adults, to learn public speaking skills.

“Since they’re in their formative years and highly susceptible to growth and development, it is crucial that we not only teach them to express themselves, but serve as role models for success and help steer them in the right direction as well,” Treat said.

Treat and others who worked with Club PS used games to help the kids warm up to the idea of public speech. Last session, they played “telephone,” demonstrating the difference between good and bad communication.

Treat said the class has been a powerful experience for her and many other students because it has taught them they have the power to have a positive change on the community.

“I’m learning that I can make a real difference in the quality of life for these children just by being there and showing them I care,” Treat said. “It’s amazing to me to see a child who’s in the lowest of spirits and refuses to participate slowly open up to us in a matter of a half hour.”

Senior Anne Sofranko said the class helped her learn more about her relationship with common stereotypes.

“This course really helps you see that you shouldn’t stereotype and judge other people because you never know where they have come from and what they have been through,” Sofranko said.

Sofranko’s experience taught her about poverty, one of Russ’ goals for the class.

“Poverty is a cycle and isn’t necessarily a reflection of the person. Societal pressures can also be to blame,” Russ said.

Mesina said she will never doubt the role the class played in her life.

“I learned a lot about the power of the human spirit. It can be broken down, but with patience, care, and support you can build it up again,” Mesina said, “The residents at the Center for the Homeless remind me ever day that there are prejudices in our world and if we do not take the time to look past them, we can miss out on relationships and experiences with wonderful people.”

Russ said out of her entire career, her work with the public communications class made her the most proud.