By Julie Schumacher Cohen, Assistant Vice President for Community Engagement and Government Affairs, The University of Scranton
As The University of Scranton, we pride ourselves on our host city being a part of our name. Indeed, we know that St. Ignatius “loved the cities,” and that most Jesuit institutions serve as anchor institutions in their communities. By their very presence, our colleges and universities help boost local economies, bring jobs and, most important, provide excellent educational opportunities. In addition, they often involve their faculty and students in community engagement activities, including organizational partnerships, student service and community-based learning (CBL).
Scranton’s Office of Community-Based Learning was established in 2017, and is now led by sociology professor Meghan Ashlin Rich, Ph.D., who serves as the Office’s faculty coordinator. She said, “The University has always been highly engaged in the Scranton community but with the Office of CBL, we now have a formalized support system for faculty who utilize this high-impact practice in their courses.”
At Scranton, we intentionally place our students throughout our local community and, in the case of CBL courses, connect these experiences back to their academic disciplines. Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J., Superior General of the Society of Jesus, has written about university education being “aimed at universal citizenship.” This kind of citizenship places students “within the perspective of the common good and of personal responsibility for that which is collective, for the res publica, what is of interest and of benefit to the whole community.”
Business Courses Address Economic Development in a Rust Belt City
For the past several years, Abhijit Roy, DBA, professor of marketing in Scranton’s Kania School of Management, has had students in his Consumer Behavior course lead projects that enhance local community development. “I value the importance of experiential learning in all my courses,” Dr. Roy said. “This is a win-win situation for both the students and the clients. The students learn by being exposed to local problems and broaden their horizons by seeing how the subject matter can help them solve these problems.”
The projects have focused on everything from redeveloping downtown Scranton, to finding ways to redesign a nearby retail marketplace, to increasing subscriptions for the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic. Recently, students in Roy’s Digital Marketing course were tapped to evaluate and make suggestions to improve municipal communication for the office of the Mayor of Scranton.
“The learning outcomes varied depending on the scope of each project,” Dr. Roy said. “In each case, the students learned to solve a local problem, using the lenses and frameworks of what they had learned in class. It was up to the client to then act on the recommendations made by the student.”
Helping Professions Are a Natural Fit for Community-Focused Learning
Since 2006, Debra Fetherman, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the University’s Community Health Education program, has incorporated community-based learning into several of her courses.
For the fourth consecutive year, Fetherman’s Health Communication Methods and Techniques course is conducting a project with the St. Joseph’s Center’s Employee Wellness program. Students assess employees’ health risks, needs and health literacy, and then create a method for intervention, ranging from interactive group health lessons and learning stations to motivational interviewing sessions to online health resources. Fetherman explained, “Students apply health behavior change theories to develop, implement and evaluate each intervention.”
All told, Fetherman estimates her students have participated in about 5,000 community-based learning hours over the past 13-plus years. She said, “The employees and group participants really act as mentors for the students. The community wants to see the students succeed. Students think about and reflect on how their actions are affecting community members as well as themselves. They learn that the real world can be messy, and that they can do positive work that can address current health problems.”
Humanities Project Shares Neighborhood Stories and Builds Relationships
In an effort to honor Scranton’s local history, Hank Willenbrink, Ph.D., associate professor of playwriting, dramatic literature and theatre history and Theatre Program director at Scranton, recently collaborated with local director Jennifer Rhoads to create “The Porches Project.”
Willenbrink and Rhoads had students and recent graduates go into Scranton’s Hill Section neighborhood to collect biographical stories from residents. Out of that material, the group wrote six original short plays that were directed by Rhoads and performed by the University Players on the porches of select Hill Section homes.
The student dramatists and their Hill Section subjects proved to be highly receptive to each other, in the process breaking down assumptions each side may have had about the other. Willenbrink said, “By putting both populations in a room together and having them exchange stories, we were able to establish connection between both groups. So, in many ways, it wasn’t us taking from them, but trying to create these plays together through collaboration and give and take.”
“I don’t subscribe to the ivory tower model of education,” Dr. Willenbrink continued. “I think that part of the mission of the University and of higher education is to be an active part of community creation and to think toward community wellness. By exposing our students to narratives and encouraging their participation, we help make them a part of the larger community.”
Social Sciences Provide Needed Community Assessments
Over the past decade, Loreen Wolfer, Ph.D., professor of sociology and criminal justice at Scranton, has developed a productive working relationship with local nonprofit, Outreach – Center for Community Resources. As a result, students in her Research Methods and Statistics courses have had the opportunity to learn research in an applied setting as a means of seeing their real-world utility.
Students have worked with Outreach’s data from the Texas Christian University Criminal Justice Comprehensive Intake (TCU CJ CI) assessment, which Outreach conducts on inmates within 14 days of their arrival at Lackawanna County Prison.
“While [Outreach] uses this information to help individual clients, they have few resources to analyze this information and to see whether there are demographic patterns across groups. My students help with this,” said Dr. Wolfer, noting that as a result of this work, the students are learning the concrete skills of SPSS coding and data analysis.
“Frequently, the concepts students learn in class seem abstract, and even if students read articles about people’s experiences or how information is used, it is still somewhat, ‘Well, that’s them,’ meaning students really can’t relate in a meaningful sense because they simply are not exposed to the actual conditions,” Dr. Wolfer added. “Community-based learning makes the concepts learned in the pristine, somewhat removed academic environment more real.”
Care for our Communities
In all of these examples, Scranton’s CBL activities are addressing community-defined needs. Ignatian practices of Cura personalis and Cura apostolica extend beyond our individual students and institutions, and into our local communities, preparing students to understand common challenges facing humanity, identify systemic problems, and develop a commitment to their communities.