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.
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. Since its inception, almost 35,000 students have participated in Outreach, making it one of the biggest and oldest service learning courses in not only the University, but the country.
“Many students report that Project Outreach is one of the most meaningful educational experiences that they have while at UM,” said Jerry Miller, Project Outreach faculty coordinator.
“Most students remember their Outreach experiences long after leaving here. Also for many students, the program has significantly influenced their career choices,” he added.
Sara Katterjohn, an LSA senior, said, “The experience has not been like any other experience I have had at the University. No other class gives you the freedom and agency like it does. It is a structured class, but in a completely unstructured way. There is a set list of requirements and things you must do, yet you have a lot of choices about how you want to accomplish these things.”
Project Outreach has multiple sections that incorporate various aspects of the surrounding community. There are sections working with preschool children, a big siblings program, placements with juvenile delinquency and criminal justice issues and a program working with health, illness, and society. Students may elect to take the course more than once or serve as a peer group leader.
“I chose the section working with children with special needs, such as autism and Down syndrome, because it was something I was not familiar with and offered a challenge. The volunteer experience has been amazing. The children have become part of my life and I plan on volunteering there after the class ends at semester,” said Jenna Naylor, an LSA sophomore.
“It’s fulfilling for me to know that I’ve helped them in some way, that I’ve had an effect on their lives, no matter how small. Seeing the kids connect with something they’ve been struggling with is very rewarding,” she added.
Beyond the effect the courses have on the students, the community benefits from the University students who volunteer their time and effort. Often solid relationship are formed and students continue to work at the sites after the class ends.
“Our sites have really appreciated having University of Michigan students volunteering with their children or elderly adults. I know that many students have strong connections with the children they work with and these relationships are very meaningful to these kids,” said Hilda Halabu, a psychology GSI. “Also, outside of these two major programs, the University offers many other classes that balance in-class learning with active service in the community,” Halabu added.
The Department of Women’s Studies offers a class on “Women in Prison” that combines the education aspects of repeated oppressions against this often ignored population along with personal interactions. Students teach these incarcerated women life skills such as healthcare and writing resumes, while also acting as a support group.
“My volunteer experience with the Women in Prison class totally changed my perspective on the criminal justice department and opened my eyes to what goes on behind closed doors. It helped me contradict stereotypes and see the women as people. These women touched my life in a special way and their capacity for love is profound,” said White.
“The most important part of education is about experience, when you can personalize the situations and learn on a greater scale. I have learned the most at the University through these community involved classes,” she added.
Although it is easy for students to get trapped in the day-to-day activities of college life and academics, most students say that their experiences with programs outside the classroom have been positive.
“Overall, I believe connecting academic theory with lived experience is key to internalizing knowledge and empowering oneself to critically assess the world we live in – even after graduation day,” Charbeneau said.
“I chose the section working with children with special needs, such as autism and Down syndrome, because it was something I was not familiar with and offered a challenge. The volunteer experience has been amazing. The children have become part of my life.”
– Jenna Naylor