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Taking it outside

Daily Arts Writer
Published December 5, 2002

English, chemistry, lunch, Spanish, group meeting, library ... does this remind you of your schedule? The daily life of a student generally centers around classes, friends, activities and studying. With the pressure and competition at the collegiate level, it is easy for students to get lost in the microcosm of the University and to live in the bubble of college-town Ann Arbor.

Paul Wong
SARAH PAUP/Daily Stephanie Kaplan, an LSA junior, works at a preschool as part of her Project Community class.

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Yet, the University actually offers a plethora of classes that get the student out of the classroom and involved in the local community.

One of the longest running academically accredited service-learning courses in the nation is the University's Project Community, a partnership between the Department of Sociology and the Division of Student Affairs. Since 1973, more than 600 students each year combine a large variety of community service with academic learning.

There are many sites and opportunities within Project Community; from service in education, health or prisons to housing or dependency programs. Many programs work solely with specific populations such as children, women, the elderly or disabled. Students can choose an area that is related to their particular academic discipline or completely venture into a new domain to expand their horizons.

One section of Project Community is a feminist mentoring program called "It's Great to be a Girl," where "femtors" are trained to work with groups of sixth grade girls to discuss issues such as friendship, harassment and body image.

"The undergraduate female mentors help these young girls challenge societal scripts and recognize their power as girls to change the world," said Carole Lapidos, director of It's Great to be a Girl.

"It's important to realize there is a universe outside the University. This program is a good eye opener and reminds students of real issues, rather than just focusing on 'me.' Helping someone else is also a way of helping yourself," Lapidos added.

Another educational Project Community class is America Reads, a class dealing with issues in literacy by setting up students as tutors to disadvantaged children who are at least one grade level behind in reading. Undergraduate students are trained and taught to develop lessons for their one-on-one sessions with a small group of kids throughout the semester.

"The aid of these tutors helps the children work on getting exciting about learning. They also encourage taking risks to learn, while simultaneously building self-esteem and establishing a relationship," said Whitney Begeman, America Reads tutor program coordinator.

"University students benefit just as much as the tutored children. Getting off campus and involved in the community gives students the opportunity to focus on something different and gain a new perspective. It also opens their eyes to issues they may never have thought of before," said Begeman.

Another area of the sociology program works with Ozone House to focus on housing and homelessnes. The agency is dedicated to improving the lives of runaway and troubled youth with a 24-hour crisis line serviced by trained University students dealing with issues ranging from suicide to abuse to homelessness.

"Often the volunteering was intense and difficult, but it was great to be able to have the in-class discussion as a means to process and debrief with other students at an academic level framing the issues. The class served as a support group and made the experience more worthwhile," said LSA junior Mia White.

According to the Project Community mission, the program is committed to student involvement in community service and social action where students grow in social responsibility, develop critical thinking skills, assess personal values and come to better understand themselves.

"For some, the learning environment, which is different from most of the courses at the University, is difficult to adjust to. We have been socialized to learning in a traditional format where students absorb knowledge from professors," said Rackham student Jessica Charbeneau, who also serves as a sociology graduate student instructor.

"But, this is part of the point of Project Community, to expose students to another way of learning and to apply that learning to their experiences at site and in their own lives. If students can embrace this format, they will get a lot from the course," Charbeneau added.

Another community-based program with multiple sections and opportunities is the Department of Psychology's Project Outreach. It is similar to the sociology programs that engage the student in real hands-on community work designed to meet community needs and expand the students' experiences and knowledge.

Project Outreach was started in 1967 and is the largest program on campus.