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Learning Through Serving

Spring 2011 | By Linda Thomas Terhune. Photo by $photocredit.value.

Recognizing the importance of theory meeting practice, Purdue and the College of Liberal Arts have placed a growing emphasis on service learning programs across the curriculum. In courts and classrooms, hospitals and homes, in West Lafayette and beyond, students gain real-world experience, and sometimes surprising personal insights, through an array of opportunities that stretch beyond the bounds of campus.

A symbiotic exchange
JoAnn Miller, associate dean for interdisciplinary programs and engagement, believes that service-learning helps the community, while simultaneously creating profound learning experiences for the students involved.

Miller has guided students into service-learning experiences since 1987, when she developed her own community engagement class on law and society. Since then, about two dozen law and society students go into the field each semester to work with the county jail, the prosecutor’s office, and local judges.

With Miller’s leadership, faculty members and the college work hard with their community partners to establish programs that offer valuable service-learning opportunities for the students and provide benefits for the participating organizations. And there is a growing body of evidence that shows the value of such efforts.

According to research funded and gathered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, service-learning has a positive effect on personal and interpersonal development, enhances students’ sense of social responsibility and citizenship, improves their ability to apply what they have learned, and contributes to career development, among numerous other benefits.

“Students need real-world experiences,” Miller says. “Service-learning essentially melds academics with real-world challenges in a symbiotic way. You bring something to the community while learning something from the community, and students take those lessons back to the classroom and into their careers.”

A rancher drives sheep along a road in the Ferghana Valley region of Jalal-Abad Province in Kyrgyzstan, where PhD student Tim Olin spent two years serving in the Peace Corps. Photo provided.

Unexpected outcomes
Ultimately, service-learning courses give students a deeper appreciation of the subject and an enhanced sense of personal values and civic responsibility. A third and equally important outcome is that of personal reflection by the students who connect what they have learned with who they are and want to be.

Anthropology professor Evelyn Blackwood, who spent nearly two years living in Indonesia studying the matrilineal Minangkabau of West Sumatra, uses such a model in her Comparative Social Organizations class.

Designed as an engagement experience that allows students to study a minority culture within a larger but still local community, the course focuses on “identity formation in a mobile world,” she says.

Service Spotlight:
Teach for America

As a young girl, Ashley Hebda dreamed of a career as a Disney cartoonist or marine biologist. As a college student, she zeroed in on reading, writing, and the desire to enact social change. As a corps member with Teach for America, she is putting all her skills to the test.

Teach for America places college graduates, who commit to teach for two years, in urban and rural low-income schools across the country. They receive full salaries and benefits from the school districts.

teach america

“We may sit in college courses and talk about how we need to change the world, but until people put themselves in the trenches, they won’t really see what is involved in making that change.”
— Ashley Hebda

Hebda (BA ’10, political science and comparative literature) is using the creativity of an artist, the discipline of a scientist, and a natural bent for language arts to help high school students in Indianapolis realize positive change.

“I wanted to be a part of some sort of tangible social change when I graduated,” Hebda says. “After serious consideration and research, I came to the conclusion that our country’s education system lay at the root of so many of this nation’s social, political, and economic problems and was closely related to poverty.”

Now a teacher at George Washington Community High School in Indianapolis, Hebda calls the experience “the most utterly rewarding, yet humbling, at times defeating, and draining experience I have ever been through.

“I anticipated that teaching would be a lot of work, but there is so much more to it. Investing these students in education and their future exhausts you on another level.”

On the other side of the country, Purdue graduate Kim Vawter (BA ’08, psychology and photography) also put her degree to good use with Teach for America, which allowed her to satisfy both an interest in human behavior and a desire to improve lives.

After joining the corps in 2009, Vawter was placed in a large middle school in central Los Angeles. Upon completing her Teach for America commitment, she became a founding teacher at a new charter school in the San Fernando Valley.


“Teaching has really shown me the potential that young students have to make change a reality in their communities,” she says. “My students overcome so many struggles in their personal lives to be successful at school –– they inspire me to work hard and they motivate me on a daily basis.” Vawter hopes eventually to open a charter school either in Los Angeles or her hometown of Indianapolis.

Hebda spends her free time in the classroom, pursuing a master’s degree in education. She has deferred acceptance to law school, where she plans to study immigration law/education law and public policy.

“I have a new perspective on what it means to accept someone without judgment,” Hebda says.

“I have students reading close to six grade levels behind in some instances. “I have also gained a sense of how 

 difficult it is to remedy social injustice, and how much stamina is involved in chipping away at complex societal problems. We may sit in college courses and talk about how we need to change the world, but until people put themselves in the trenches, they won’t really see what is involved in making that change.”

By Linda Thomas Terhu

“Archaeology students have field schools and bio-anthropology students do research in rain forest sites, but cultural anthropology and general majors didn’t have an option,” Blackwood says. “We needed to get students out of their comfort zones so they could gain a better understanding of good citizenship and go beyond media images to see in person that what they are reading about actually occurs in the real world.”

Last fall, eight of Blackwood’s students spent the first half of the semester in the classroom before taking to the field in Frankfort, Indiana, to serve the community’s Latino population through the Purdue Extension Office in Clinton County. Three hours a week for six weeks, they worked with the English as a Second Language Program, helped with daycare for immigrant families, and assisted adults in a computer competency class.

For students like Steph Silva and Alysha Latvis, classroom readings and discussions on topics such as understanding “whiteness” as an ethnicity and the experiences of ethnic groups in the United States came into focus during the service portion of the course.

“In class, we talked about the hostility experienced by many Latino immigrants, whether undocumented or documented,” says Latvis, a junior from Maine majoring in genetics. “Working at the center and helping students who were respectful and genuinely wished to learn really brought home the obstacles they face in their daily lives.”

The class had an even more profound effect on Silva, increasing her understanding of her own ethnicity and influencing her personal values and feelings of civic responsibility.

“Before this course,” Silva says, “I always confusedly checked the ‘other’ box on forms asking for my ethnicity. Ethnicity seemed like a mysterious experience that I wasn’t a part of. Now I see my ethnicity as an experience of whiteness, which not only is an ascribed status, but also my own countenance of unearned privileges.”

Silva, a senior sociology major who plans to study deviant-labeled sexuality in graduate school, previously thought her only career option would be as a college professor. She may now consider using her writing and teaching skills in a more service-oriented way.

“Seeing how issues you learn about in class are affecting and being experienced by other individuals brings ethnography and sociopolitical context to life,” she says. “It opens your eyes to new possibilities and gives you a deeper understanding of how to offer better service to a community.”

An eye toward change

Laurie Graham, assistant director of the Women’s Studies program, reports similar positive outcomes from a service-learning practicum course she created with the YWCA Greater Lafayette’s Domestic Violence Program.

“The course fits well with women’s studies, which besides being academic and theoretical is very much change-oriented,” Graham says. “We want to create a better world. We’re activist as well as theoretical.”

Because of the sensitive nature of domestic violence and the need for victim privacy, students were required to complete intensive crisis center training and shadow staff members before working up to 10 hours a week with the local domestic violence program.

“Many women’s studies students want to do social work or go into family law,” Graham says. “This helps them really get a feel for it.”


peace corp
ABOVE: Tim Olin spent two years in the Kyrgyz Republic with the Peace Corps and another year doing service work in Afghanistan before starting his doctoral studies in history at Purdue. Photos provided.


Service Spotlight: Peace Corps

In September 2005, Tim Olin departed for the Kyrgyz Republic to begin a two-year assignment in the Peace Corps. Among the other recruits was a woman headed to the northern part of the country to teach elementary school.

Olin was destined for the south to teach English at the International University of Kyrgyzstan. Before parting ways, they agreed to keep in touch. Olin, now a doctoral student in history at Purdue, joined the Peace Corps on a whim. He’d spent a year in Munich after college and loved to travel. Curiosity drew him to a recruiting session at the University of Wisconsin, where he had earned a bachelor’s degree and was completing a master’s in German literature. Impulse led him to sign on quickly and to request placement in Central Asia. Experience as a substitute teacher in his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, landed him in a teaching position.

His stay began, as most Peace Corps assignments do, with a two-month residency with a local family. He then settled in Jalal-Abad, a city of approximately five million people located in the Ferghana Valley, near the border with China. 

Home for two years was a Khrushchev-era apartment in a building with no heat, an infrequent water supply, and a tendency towards gas and electricity shortages. In the two years that Olin was overseas, he chose not to return to the United States. Instead, he took a month off to travel in Southeast Asia and then signed on for additional service work.

During one summer, Olin taught English in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the Youth Exchange and Study Program, a Department of State-sponsored program designed for high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations. Olin spent another seven weeks in the program in 2010, teaching English in Punjab along the India-Pakistan border. 

Peace Corps assignments and volunteer work in Kabul and Punjab might not be for everyone, Olin acknowledges. But it was perfect for him, a self-described adventuresome spirit who is willing to get out of his comfort zone and who is intellectually curious. 

“It was great,” he says. “There is no doubt it is a large commitment of time, energy, and brainpower. You really have to want to do it. It’s not easy. It’s not a vacation, but there is no doubt that it will change your life.” 

Change indeed, in more ways than one might anticipate — the fellow corps member with whom Olin shared the plane ride is now his wife, Tana Olin. Though assigned to different parts of the country, they stayed in touch, flew back and forth on old Soviet planes to see each other, worked together in Kabul and married on July 4, 2009. Some day, Olin says, they may sign up again, this time heading overseas as a couple.

 By Linda Thomas Terhu
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