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Service Learning Trips

Posted on Thursday, October 13th, 2011

A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture on campus given by Hunt Brown, Director of Sustainability and Senior Lecturer, Earth & Environmental Sciences, about a fascinating service-learning course he taught here at WSU.   The course, UH 203, took place during intersession 2007 (that's the break between fall and winter quarters), and included a one-week service trip to New Orleans, about two years after Hurrican Katrina hit.  The students researched economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainability in New Orleans.  If you're wondering why Hunt was lecturing about a class that took place nearly 4 years ago, it's because it ties in very closely with the subject matter of this year's common text, Zeitoun. Weeks 1 and 2 of UH 203 involved classroom lecture, activity and research.  During Week 3, the students traveled to New Orleans to serve in the Lower 9th Ward.  And the final week of the class, week 4, consisted of oral and written reflection.  Brown said, "Doing research before just made sense."  More on that later.  As far as I know, Brown didn't ask a librarian to help with the research component of this course. Brown and his students helped with rebuilding homes in the 9th ward.   They partnered with several local organizations including the Alliance for Affordable Energy, Lower 9th Ward Neighborhood Association and the Sierra Club (among others).  These organizations helped choose the homeowners that would be recipients of the students' help that week.  Then the students went into the selected homes and helped install radiant barriers (a kind of insulation) in the attics. Among the most fascinating aspects of this course, and any service-learning course, are the students' reflections.  One comment Brown made during his lecture struck me.  He said that before the trip, students thought that people were crazy for moving back to the 9th ward after Hurricane Katrina caused so much destruction.   Brown said they felt differently afterwards - after they had a chance to meet the homeowners and talk with them about their experiences. In most service-learning experiences, instructors will often visit the service sites before asking their students to go.  In the situation where the service site is hundreds of miles away, Brown said, "I swallowed hard and said, 'Here we come!'"   He worked with Loyola University in planning the trip, so that helped put him at ease.  Loyola became the students' home in New Orleans. During the evenings, Brown planned for guest speakers to come talk to his students about local issues relating to city's recovery or what happened during Katrina.  They heard from a security guard who had served at the Superdome during Katrina, and another speaker came from Catholic Social Services to talk to the students from a social services standpoint. Brown also shared some student reflections with me.  He said he was quite impressed with their reflection comments.  Some examples include:

  • "The New Orleans experience was one of the most eye-opening and incredible experiences of my life."
  • "During the week that we spent around some of the most courageous people I have ever met, I experienced every emotion possible. I experienced anger, frustration, sadness, happiness, pride, and amazement just by talking to the local people and seeing the destruction that the storm caused."
  • "Traveling to New Orleans made me change my opinion about making assumptions, making uniformed and uneducated decisions and comments, and gave me a new perspective on the world. Everything matters. Race, class, money, political power, and education along with everything else all matter."

Service-learning classes that include service trips are particularly fascinating to me.  And I think these kinds of experiences, in particular, lend themselves very well to a need for research.   It makes sense to me that some information before the trip may help the students prepare for what they are about to experience, especially since the students are traveling somewhere they may never have been before, and they may encounter unusual situations or conditions at their service site.  Of course they can never fully be prepared for what they are about to experience, however, I think it can help challenge their assumptions even before they serve. I met two co-instructors at the lecture that will be conducting a similar class during winter quarter, with a service-trip to New Orleans over spring break.  I have offered my services to them as librarian-partner for the course to help the students inform themselves before their trip.  We have a meeting scheduled next week to discuss what kinds of research will be helpful for the students.  I'll write more about this after we meet.