By Angeline Boyer, Assistant Director of Media Relations, Saint Peter’s University

Members of the Saint Peter’s Modern Physics class with their professor, Debing Zeng, Ph.D., at a local high school as part of their service learning project (photo courtesy of Saint Peter’s University)

Members of the Saint Peter’s Modern Physics class with their professor, Debing Zeng, Ph.D., at a local high school as part of their service learning project (photo courtesy of Saint Peter’s University)

At Jesuit institutions, faculty and staff are tasked with bringing the core Jesuit values to life for their students. Examples of these values include cura personalis, a Latin phrase meaning care for the whole person, and the tenet of being ‘men and women for and with others.’

There are many ways to accomplish this goal but, according to Kari Larsen, J.D., associate professor of criminal justice at Saint Peter’s University, the best way to do it is through a service learning course. In addition to her role in the criminal justice department, Larsen also serves as the director of the service learning program at Saint Peter’s.

A service learning course involves coursework that is integrated with community service. In order for a course to be designated as a service learning course, students must perform a service project that is related to the academic content of the course, and to which the students perform a set number of hours of service. In addition, they must complete an assignment in which they reflect upon the service project; the relationship between the project and the academic content; and the transformation that took place through the service – whether it was a transformation in themselves, the individuals they interacted with, or transformation within the community.

Service learning courses are offered by a variety of programs and departments at Saint Peter’s, including nursing, sociology, criminal justice, business and physics. There are currently thirteen service learning courses being offered in the Spring 2020 semester, with approximately 229 students participating in service projects. This means that Saint Peter’s students could perform as many as 4,580 service hours during this semester alone!

Through participation in meaningful volunteer and service learning experiences with more than thirty Hudson County nonprofit agencies and religious organizations, Saint Peter’s students and faculty directly contribute to the empowerment of local constituencies. In their roles as tutors, mentors, outreach workers, researchers and social work assistants, students share their time and talent with their neighbors in need of encouragement, support and assistance.

Saint Peter’s service learning projects have seen tremendous success in the communities in which they serve. For example, as part of a “Modern Physics” course taught by Debing Zeng, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics, Saint Peter’s students taught short physics lessons to area high school students, who then demonstrated what they learned by participating in physics experiments themselves.

Another example of a successful service project with a positive community impact occurred in Fall 2018, when a dedicated group of nursing students worked with The Campus Kitchen and the Saint Peter’s University Food Pantry and Clothes Closet to collect new and gently used items of clothing, toiletries and other children’s necessities. These products were then made available every Saturday for local families facing economic challenges in a welcoming space inside the former convent at St. Aedan’s: The Saint Peter’s University Church . The nursing students then partnered with Saint Peter’s art students to brighten up the space, now called the Kids Corner.

The Kids Corner also provides opportunities for students to present educational programming to parents on topics such as nutrition, as well as play games with the children. It is all part of the Jesuit mission interwoven into the School of Nursing’s curriculum, according to Kathleen Motacki, M.S.N., R.N., B.C., clinical professor of nursing at Saint Peter’s. “Our students are following the Jesuit mission of lifelong service to others,” she explained. “Their efforts have been met with overwhelming gratitude from parents.”

Not only do these service learning projects impact the local Jersey City community, they help to shape the Saint Peter’s students who participate in them. For example, the University’s “Leadership in Criminal Justice” course includes a service component in which students serve as mentors at the Boys and Girls Club in Jersey City. The Saint Peter’s students involved in this program were completely moved by their experience.

One student said, “The time you spend with the kids is the only chance you have to try to get them on the right path and tell them they have to do the right thing.” Another student said, “It makes me want to cry when I think about leaving.”

While Kari Larsen has the goal of offering fifteen service learning courses per semester, she is proud of the progress that the program has made. “The courses tend to be more work for our faculty members, but once they run one, they tend to do so frequently because they see the impact that they have on the students,” she explained. “In the end, we are ensuring that our students are provided with opportunities for what we as a Jesuit institution intend for them to experience.”