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Professor given award for 'service learning' methods

BY JACQUELINE E. HOWARD
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 18, 2005

Imagine a class where instead of sitting in a stuffy lecture hall, you venture into the city to change the life of a troubled youth, to study elaborate murals or to attend a memorable feminist rally. These activities are just a sample of what students in one of American culture and women’s studies Prof. Maria Cotera’s classes have experienced.Because of the importance Cotera places upon the use of community service in her classes, she was awarded the Michigan Campus Compact Faculty/Staff Community Service Learning Award. MCC is a state-level, nonprofit organization devoted to improving the education of college students in Michigan. “From the moment I joined the faculty in 2001, I was intrigued by the pedagogical possibilities of community service learning, especially with the idea of creating a humanities course that might include an experiential component.” Cotera said.MCC annually recognizes outstanding community service learning in the classroom by faculty and staff. Jeffrey Howard, who proposed the idea of the award almost 14 years ago and introduced the idea of service learning to Cotera, said one reason Cotera was awarded this honor was because of her innovative and creative teaching methods.“She’s an extraordinarily committed faculty member,” Howard said. “She has a unique commitment to her students.”The community-service projects Cotera offers her students, along with her strong commitment, make her class memorable, LSA sophomore Michael Smith said.In Cotera’s American Culture class, Smith attended a field trip to Mexican Town in Southeastern Detroit. During this project, he went to the Detroit Institute of Arts, ate lunch at an authentic Mexican restaurant and studied murals within the renovated inner city.“In her class, I saw new things,” Smith said. “After learning how, within the U.S., many cultures adapt and converge, now I have a new appreciation for Latino culture.”Cotera said she wanted her students to learn from these experiences outside of the classroom. Along with taking her students to Mexican Town, Cotera has developed another project in which she takes her students to Vista Maria, a social service agency in Dearborn that provides treatment to abused girls within the juvenile justice system. The students actively interact with the girls while learning about women’s history.“By providing students with a project to work on in collaboration with people who have had very different life experiences from their own, I hoped to create a space in which relatively privileged individuals might come to a deeper understanding of the social forces that weigh upon different life choices,” Cotera said. “At Vista Maria, my students encountered highly creative young women who, because of their race, gender and especially class, found themselves veering toward unhealthy lifestyles and juvenile delinquency.”With the use of experiential learning, Cotera said she wants her students to understand not only how their knowledge can affect the community, but how they can learn from the community as well. She said she challenged herself to always incorporate experiential learning in her classes.“Service learning is important because it changes a student’s personal aspirations to public aspirations,” Howard said. “The use of the community prepares a student to not only work to fulfill their personal aspirations, but also those aspirations to work for their communities as well.”Because of the positive effect service-learning has produced in Cotera’s classes, she is working with Maria Montoya, director of the Latino Studies program, to incorporate a community service learning component to the curriculum.“Community service learning courses offer both challenges and unique opportunities to teachers and students.” Cotera said. “For students, it means committing themselves emotionally and intellectually to an enterprise that takes them out of their comfort zone.”With the combination of Cotera’s ambitions to positively change academia, her youthful drive and dedication to the University, this honor is part of the start of her career as an educator. “I’m extremely proud to have been recognized by MCC,” she said. “Especially since there are so many hard-working faculty at the University who also incorporate elements of community service learning into their courses.”


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