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Service Learning Heading to a Community Near You

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Sugar-coated graham crackers, a five-year-old’s heart-melting smile and the ability to make a difference has turned Portland Community College student Mo O’Shaughnessy into a service learning believer.

As a student this fall in the cooperative education seminar "Community Service and Action," O’Shaughnessy couples schoolwork with volunteering at St. Vincent dePaul, delivering food to under-privileged families in a Southeast Portland neighborhood. The act of slipping a few graham crackers into the food box of one five-year-old girl forever changed O’Shaughnessy’s life.

"She asked me why I was there," O’Shaughnessy, a special education major, recalled. "I told her `Because someday I want to be a teacher so I can spend all day with children like you.’ She was just happy that someone thought enough of her to bring her graham crackers. It was just amazing."

Mo now volunteers at Abernethy Elementary School in Southeast Portland to tutor special needs students for a PCC writing class, in addition to her food delivering duties with St. Vincent dePaul. She’s also been known to help out in a camp for disabled youth during the summer. She, in other words, has been bitten by the service learning bug.

That bug found its way to PCC with the help of PCC Cascade writing instructor Porter Raper and long-time PCC Sylvania psychology instructor and service learning enthusiast Gary Lesniak.

Starting with brainstorming sessions in 1994, the duo attempted to breathe life into an idea that has been around since the days of 19th century philosopher John Dewey’s "Learn By Doing" theory. Buoyed by a study in 1993 at the University of Michigan that concluded student learning improved when volunteerism dove-tailed with coursework, the instructors hoped to bring service learning to PCC on a grand scale.

That hope is becoming reality. This fall, Raper leads the effort as the college’s service learning coordinator, teaming up enthused faculty with eager students and grateful social service agencies.

The newly created position was made possible by a PCC staff development grant that allows Raper to teach half-time in writing and literature and coordinate the project with the rest of his time.

"We wanted to connect our students with the community to make their education more relevant and get them to question who they are," Raper said recently. "We also want them to consider what it means to be an active and participating community member."

The volunteering generally is done in lieu of a writing assignment or research project within a given class. O’Shaughnessy’s seminar, for example, gives her three credits for taking the class and four more for volunteering at St. Vincent’s. But students find out soon enough that this volunteer option isn’t a way to skate out of working hard.

"At times, students believe they are reducing their workload," Raper said, "but when they get involved in these volunteer projects they end up devoting a lot of time to it. This enthusiasm also shows in their work."

The students turn in written reports on the lives they are changing by helping in their communities. Most of the time, the lives that change are those of the students themselves.

"I have learned that for me there is no room for complaints," O’Shaughnessy said. "I also know that I am here to help others."

It is life-affirming experiences such as these that have transformed O’Shaughnessy and students like her into people seeking volunteer opportunities meshed with their curriculum in courses such as sociology, political science and even automotive technology.

Forward-thinking educators at Portland Community College are working diligently to see that those students and the communities in dire need of their services have the programs in place to do just that.

Currently, service learning components are plugged into PCC courses in sociology, philosophy, biology, automotive technology, psychology, literature and writing, building construction technology, English as a second language, health and medical sciences and criminal justice.

"I like service learning for the simple reason that an instructor should teach their students to think," said Cascade Campus psychology instructor Fred Miller, whose Psychology 214 class this term is incorporating service learning "One way to provide that is by making theory real. People don’t remember theory, but they remember experiences. That’s why I support service learning."

The groundswell of support from faculty is something that Raper has witnessed from the beginning and he knows why. "All it takes is to see one of your student’s lives transformed by this experience," he said. "Once you see that as a teacher, it is absolutely electric."

Lesniak, now the director of the Sylvania Campus Teaching and Learning Center, agrees with Raper, adding that with the service learning model everyone from the student to the community agency and onto the reinvigorated instructor benefits.

"I used to send students into hospitals to observe for my abnormal psychology class, but I decided to give them a reason to be there," he recalled. "Every quarter there were students who were so personally and academically touched by this. Put it this way, there were a lot of `Ah Ha!’ experiences … and the agencies really appreciate that."

One person who certainly appreciates service learning, and O’Shaughnessy, is her supervisor at Abernethy Elementary, special education teacher Merilee Payne.

"She is a godsend," Payne said. "She is full of energy, really positive and she loves doing this. She’s pretty amazing."

Bolstering this mostly faculty and student fueled effort are PCC Service-to-Community Scholarships through the PCC Foundation. These scholarships are set aside for students who promise to do volunteer work at social service and educational agencies in their communities. Local businesses fund these scholarships.

Service learning also has a staunch backer in PCC President Dan Moriarty.

"I think service learning has the potential of becoming an important and distinctive part of our curriculum here at PCC," he said. "It benefits our students, our service agencies and our communities. There are a lot of bridges being built. The bottom line is there is also a lot of learning taking place."

For information on the PCC Foundation Service to Community Scholarship Program, call Jan Coulton at 977-4374.


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