Service-based learning

Professor Molly Enz was taking stock of her courses one day when she came to a nagging conclusion: They needed an infusion of life—real life. Enz, a professor of global studies and French at State since 2007, wanted her students to experience the culture of the countries they study in class. And while textbooks are a good starting point, they weren’t telling the whole story.

“I just felt like there was something missing in my classes focusing on Haiti,” Enz said. “It was challenging for students to fully understand the topics being discussed, such as the extreme poverty the country faces, without some sort of real-life component.”

Enz found the solution to her predicament in the concept of service learning. It’s an approach defined by the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse as “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility and strengthen communities.”

Enz began incorporating service learning into her advanced French courses and, later, in the global studies capstone course. Students in the capstone class are required to complete a service-learning project with a local service organization that works to alleviate poverty and hunger.

One organization many students choose to work with is Haiti Solar Oven Partners, a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission project that places solar ovens in the hands of the poor in Haiti’s deforested lands.

Students work on the pre-assembly of solar ovens at Haiti Solar Oven Partners’ workshop in Volga. The solar oven parts are placed in a sea container and shipped to Haiti, where American volunteers work alongside Haitians to assemble the ovens. After completing a required two-day educational training seminar, Haitian participants can buy the ovens for a small fee.

Enz’s work with Haiti Solar Oven Partners inspired her to organize a service-learning trip to Haiti for her students. But the 2010 earthquake put that idea on hold and prompted Enz to turn her sights instead to the Dominican Republic, which shares a border with Haiti on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea.

So, in 2013, Enz led SDSU’s first-ever alternative spring break trip to the Dominican Republic. Eleven students from a variety of disciplines spent one week in the island nation learning about the culture and working with the organization Outreach360 to teach classes for children.

Enz was thrilled about the idea of an international service-learning opportunity.

“When service learning is paired with study abroad, students have a wonderful opportunity to experience another culture, do meaningful work outside the classroom, expand their worldview … and become more engaged global citizens,” Enz said.

Recent graduates Jameson Berreth and Hanna Distel made that first spring-break trip to the Dominican Republic, and both are glad they did.

Distel, a senior premedicine student from Rapid City, also worked with Haiti Solar Oven Partners in Enz’s French and global studies courses. She was excited about the opportunity to learn outside the classroom.

“Theoretical is great, but you can get that information from watching movies,” Distel said. “Unless you are there seeing the people and smelling the smells, you aren’t going to be prepared. You need to see it to understand it.”

During their week in the Dominican Republic, Distel and Berreth taught English and community health to children between 6 and 12 years old. Distel received literal “hands-on experience,” teaching children about hygiene by putting glitter in hand sanitizer and having the students shake hands with one another to simulate the spread of germs.

Distel plans to attend medical school and simultaneously earn a master’s degree in public health. Her ultimate goal is to work with refugees in war zones through Doctors Without Borders.

“It’s one of the reasons I signed up for the Dominican Republic trip, and the trip definitely solidified my plan,” Distel said.

Berreth, who is from Eureka, graduated from State in 2013. Last year, he was the student recipient of the SDSU service-learning award. In addition to the trip with Enz’s class to the Dominican Republic, he also traveled to Haiti with Haiti Solar Oven Partners after completing his service-learning project with the organization in Enz’s global studies capstone course.

He agreed that his experiences with service learning have prepared him for the future. He’ll be putting many of the principles he learned into action during his master’s program in public administration at Syracuse University.

“I believe the knowledge and experiences I gained through service learning greatly contributed to my resume and helped lead to my acceptance into this prestigious program,” Berreth said.

For her part, Enz said she hopes the service-learning trip to the Dominican Republic will become a regular offering for students. She also wants to expand service-learning opportunities in Brookings.

“It’s easy for college students to get so involved in their courses and in campus activities that they forget how much occurs off campus in their local community,” Enz said. “I think those connections are really important to cultivate. It’s a small world, and we’re all linked in some way.”

Hanna Larsen

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