Gusties with a passion for service have a unique opportunity during the College’s January Interim Experience term this winter. The Community Action and Social Change class, taught by Associate Professor of Religion Thia Cooper, focuses on learning about large issues within society, combining in-class learning with real-world volunteer experience. This is the sixth time Cooper has taught the class and this year, students are focusing on the issues of mass incarceration, immigration, and homelessness.
“Students are often fascinated by a lot of the issues facing us today but feel unprepared to take them on. I wanted to create a course where students could talk about those issues, but also serve in the community at the same time, and it turned out to be really popular,” Cooper said.
According to Cooper, the goal of the class is to help students find ways to be active in the community and to help them feel confident tackling difficult issues. Students accomplish this by spending two days of class time a week at their chosen service site to meet a 16-hour volunteering requirement for the class.
Starting out, students could choose between three projects. The first option was working with the Building Bridges Conference and focusing on the topic of mass incarceration, the theme for this year’s conference.
A second option was working at the Lincoln Community Center in Mankato, tutoring students and adults in ESL classes, and focusing on the topic of immigration.
The third option was working at the Salvation Army men’s homeless shelter in Mankato, serving meals and socializing with individuals, focusing on the topic of homelessness.
“There is a split between practice and thinking together in the classroom that I think makes it very good for J-term because this time is supposed to be experiential,” Cooper said. “Also, because I offer three different options, it’s a good way for students to get involved with one issue but still be able to learn about a couple of others.”
Sophomore psychological science major Taylor Sommers ‘15 enrolled in the class because of how it facilitates volunteering. “During the year it’s always my intent to get involved off campus, but having the means to do so can be difficult,” Sommers said. “I like how this class took relevant issues facing our society and gave us a chance to volunteer and make a difference as individuals.”
Sommers chose the immigration project because it is such a hot topic in the country. “We have learned about the laws for and against immigration throughout U.S history, but I wanted to experience a new and modern perspective firsthand,” Sommers said.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays each week, Sommers and two fellow classmates drive to the Lincoln Community Center in Mankato, where they are placed in a classroom with immigrants – mostly Somali women – who are in the beginning stages of learning English. Working either on an individual basis, or in small groups, they go through a lesson that an instructor has planned out.
“I’ve learned how difficult and crazy the English language can be,” Sommers said. “There are so many exceptions to the rule. Attempting to explain these differences makes me very empathetic for those learning English.”
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are spent in class discussing the larger themes of mass incarceration, immigration, and homelessness.
“In this class, you gain a different perspective on issues that are prevalent in society but not necessarily talked about. For example, mass incarceration is a large problem that is often overlooked by politicians and everyday Americans who are unaffected by the system. This class sparks conversations that are necessary for further progression,” Sommers said.
“I have learned that because of the complexity of these large issues, many shy away from them. Society needs to be able to digest the problems facing us so there can be change. This class gets us in the mindset to do just that.”
Another student in the class, sophomore management major Kyle Bright ’15, chose to do the Salvation Army project. “I’ve always been curious about The Salvation Army and this seemed to be a great way to get on the inside of the organization and see how it functions- turns out to have been a good choice,” Bright said.
Ten years from now, Bright most likely won’t remember every book he read, or the discussions with his class, or even sitting down with Cathy Cohen, the passionate guest speaker who spent a day speaking to the class.
“What I will walk away with from this class is the memories of all the incredible people at The Salvation Army. They are very diligent people,” Bright said. “The opportunity to go to Mankato and interact with an entirely different social biome was humbling and renewing. I see the necessity for continued community action even clearer now and I adamantly believe that it will be a part of my life forever.”
Students will give a 15 minute final presentation on the last day of class with their particular service group, focusing on how their project relates to overall themes discussed throughout the class. Along with a presentation, students must come up with an advocacy component.
“By the end of class they have to come up with what they think is a good way to advocate further for the issue. For example, with Building Bridges, they have to think: if I’m taking this seriously, how can I continue to work toward raising awareness of mass incarceration,” Cooper said.
Cooper’s Community Action class tends to encourage long-term commitments to service. In fact, one of this year’s Building Bridges Conference coordinators, senior political science major Becca Eastwood, took the class a few years ago.
“I would recommend this class to anyone who feels they want to volunteer, but doesn’t know how to go about the initial phases of the process. I definitely have enjoyed my time as a volunteer,” Sommers said.
“I love the opportunity to build relationships with women who are going through an experience so foreign to me. Seeing their dedication to coming to class each day gives me a sense of perspective about my education, and how students at Gustavus can use what we learn to help others.”
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