As director of the Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning at the College of the Holy Cross, Isabelle Jenkins ’10 likes to refer to herself as a matchmaker.

“I like to refer to our office as a matchmaking service for faculty and community partners,” Jenkins explains. “Our goal is to help faculty meet the learning goals they have for their students through the experiential learning component, and then, simultaneously, we’re working with community partners to help them meet their goals.”

CBL, as the office is known at Holy Cross, aims to bring classroom learning to life through local projects and opportunities that meet partner needs and enable students and faculty to live out the College’s mission through academic work. Since 1843, the College has called Worcester, MA, home. Today, Worcester is the second-largest city in New England, home to a growing, diverse population of more than 200,000 residents.

The city is so valuable to Holy Cross that a collaborative partnership with Worcester is one of six pillars anchoring the College’s recently released strategic plan for the next decade. For Holy Cross, to be “in and of Worcester” is a key guidepost, for embracing and promoting the world of opportunity in its own backyard, and being an active partner in the city’s continued success, growth and revitalization.

“As a liberal arts academic institution, to have service directly tied into a course makes explicit that two of our goals for students are to become educated through the liberal arts and to be of service for and with others,” Jenkins says. “Community-based learning enables that to happen because they’re connecting their academics with hands-on experience.”

Greg Tremba is the principal at City View Discovery School, a Worcester public school that has partnered with CBL for the past three years. Ten Holy Cross students from Latin 101 and 102 work with a group of twelve to fourteen 4th and 5th graders at City View once a week, as part of an after-school program. When the program began in 2019, City View students were introduced to Latin; this year, Holy Cross students are helping the City View students learn mythology by creating their own mythical characters and stories. In turn, the City View students are helping Holy Cross students learn their course content more deeply.

“My students see these really great Holy Cross students come into our building, and they’re engaging, intelligent and articulate. And they work really well connecting with our kids,” Tremba says. “We’re trying to create a real outlet for our students to see what’s out there, what kids are doing in college, what it really looks like. And the feedback from the Holy Cross students is that they feel like they are making a difference with our students.”

Through Holy Cross’ J.D. Power Center for Liberal Arts in the World, academic courses partnering with CBL span departments across the College, such as those in anthropology, biology, world languages, psychology, political science, and visual arts. Not only do CBL courses help meet a need at local organizations, but experiential learning is also a teaching strategy proven to reach all types of learners. CBL courses at Holy Cross combine lectures and a hands-on component at the partner organizations, as well as reflection.

“It matches how a lot of students learn best, particularly students with minoritized identities,” Jenkins says. “A student can enter the learning cycle at any point. Someone who learns more traditionally might start with an education theory and then apply it in the after-school program where they are tutoring. Someone who is a visual or relational learner might say, ‘This happened while I was tutoring a kid in the after-school program and now that theory makes sense.’”

Jenkins values the staff at the partner organizations as co-educators for the Holy Cross students. The office partners with 40 community organizations in the city, from schools and after-school programs, to health care organizations and nonprofits. She says, “It expands who is teaching our students, and where knowledge is generated and valued. As a teacher, I am learning alongside my students, and there’s other people, particularly community members, who are knowledgeable and have really important insight, expertise, cultural backgrounds and identities, who expand teaching and learning beyond what happens in the four walls of the classroom.”

Jenkins emphasizes that meaningful service work with Worcester partners happens in offices across the Holy Cross campus, from its large student-led community service and justice program, to community-service work study, to the College’s Teacher Education Program. The J.D. Power Center is also home to the Scholarship in Action (SIA) program, which advances Worcester-based faculty research that makes and provides experiential learning opportunities for students, all while collaborating with organizations in the city. Funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, SIA aims to create a body of research that can spark long-term and systemic social justice changes, while also addressing an organization’s immediate needs.

“Engaging in the city of Worcester, or whichever city any Jesuit school is in, is about doing justice,” says Michelle Sterk Barrett, director of the J.D. Power Center and former director of CBL. “The real measure of our success as institutions is who our students become as human beings, which is deeply formed by engagement outside of campus. Effective education aims toward the whole person and educates the mind and the heart simultaneously. And part of how you educate the heart is by having people in relationship with other people on campus and off campus in the city of Worcester. Being in relationship with people who suffer the negative effects of structural inequality can make students care about structural inequality in a way that they otherwise would not.”

By Maura Sullivan Hill, Contributing Writer, College of the Holy Cross