Community Engaged Learning Courses Gives Students Exposure to Social Justice

by Kyla Guilfoil, Staff Writer

Community-engaged learning courses, or CEL courses, are designed to expose students to experiences outside the classroom to enhance their learning. Connection to unfamiliar environments and social issues encourages students to examine social justice in their neighborhoods. 

This practice is not new to Manhattan College, as professors like Andrew Skotnicki, Ph.D, have been teaching CEL courses for years. Skotnicki leads one of MC’s best-known CEL courses, Criminal Justice Ethics, which allows students access to Rikers Island. 

The goal of this course, and CEL as a system, is to have students engage in a mutually beneficial relationship with a community-based group or organization to fulfill community-defined needs. This relationship is key to CEL courses, as students truly learn from the community and gain knowledge on what needs to be addressed within it. 

In 2014, Kathleen Von Euw began working at MC as the assistant director of Campus Ministry and Social Action, making lasting changes to MC’s CEL program. Von Euw has spent the last six years organizing data on the different CEL courses, connecting with faculty and further developing the program. 

“There wasn’t anybody in my role when I came to the college, so I was trying to build a community of practitioners and help faculty that teach in different schools and across different disciplines, and bring them together so they can learn from one another, because they all have different expertise and experience,” Von Euw said. 

Von Euw launched the first faculty development seminar for CEL in 2017. Her seminars assist professors in developing CEL courses within their discipline and allow professors to learn from each other. Veteran CEL participants, such as Skotnicki, have also attended these seminars.  

“We have people who have been teaching [these courses] for a long time, but the course evolves and maybe they work with a different community-based organization, the relationships evolve, and the course changes,” Von Euw said. “It’s a lot of extra work to teach a course this way, and they do it because they really believe both in how it contributes to student’s learning and the experience that students have that helps them better understand the course content and also because they’re believing in community engagement, public service and social justice education.”

Since Von Euw began working with the CEL courses at MC, involvement has grown considerably. There has been a 79 percent increase in CEL course selections, a 54.08 percent increase in the number of students enrolled, and a 95.07 percent increase in the number of faculty teaching CEL courses.

“It’s really important that we think ethically, to develop meaningful experiences for our students, where they’re learning,” Von Euw said. “We think about these courses and these experiences in the community as an additional text.”

Professor of political science Margaret Groarke has taught CEL courses for years and now assists Von Euw in the development of other CEL courses at MC. Groarke emphasized the importance of real-world exposure for students. She cited that community-engaged learning is nationally identified as a “high impact practice” by college educators. 

“You can read about homelessness, but if you sit down and talk to somebody who’s homeless and can’t find someplace they can afford to live, you’re going to have a different understanding of that,” Groarke said. “[Through community engagement] you’re going to have a better sense of what the social inequalities in society are, as you see what people are dealing with in their everyday life, that may be different than your everyday life.” 

Groarke also mentioned how CEL classes give students an opportunity to practice within their chosen field in a real-world setting. She cited the advanced public relations class in the communication department has given students an opportunity to design a PR plan for an actual community organization, the University Neighborhood Housing Program, which is a local non-profit for affordable housing.  

“The students are going to learn about how you put together PR plans, and how you try and convince your clients that this is the right plan for them,” Groarke said. “And they have to deal with the realities of it because they’re dealing with a real client, and the organization is going to get the product of all their brainstorming and thinking and all their learning about PR to get some hopefully useful plans that they can put into practice.”

Jenn Guilbeault is a sophomore at MC who participated in CEL through the Arches program last year. Groarke shared that the Arches program is intended to be students’ first CEL experience. Guilbeault participated in an Arches art course during the fall 2019 semester and a religious studies course during the spring 2020 semester. 

In the fall, Guilbeault and her art class took a bus to a library in the Bronx and helped create art with kids from the community. 

“Since we’re in the city, it definitely brings us to different cultures and diversity,” Guilbeault said. “I’m from a very [rural] area in Massachusetts, so for me to go all the way to the Bronx, I’m introduced to so many different cultures and demographics. I definitely feel like if the courses are presented correctly, then it is very educational and good [for students].”

Unfortunately, Guilbeault was not able to participate in community engagement during her religious studies course, as the chaotic outbreak of COVID-19 last spring sent MC students home early. The drastic changes made to instruction this semester comes after difficult months of planning by professors, especially those hoping to continue community-engaged learning this semester. 

Melinda Wilson, an assistant professor of English at the college, had to redesign her fall 2020 Arches courses. She worked with Renaissance Youth Center in the Bronx, who were diligent in finding a way to help the Bronx youth, despite the pandemic. The RYC provides many afterschool programs to underprivileged youth and teaches students from ages two to 19 about social justice through art, sports, and academics. 

Professor Wilson’s English 110 Arches students have begun tutoring some of these children via Zoom. 

“You could tell that my student could tell that she was needed, that it was a rewarding experience for her, because she actually made a difference,” Wilson said. “That she wasn’t just doing volunteerism to check off a box, but that she was doing something that actually made a significant difference in this little girl’s day. It made her more confident, it made her feel more prepared.”

Groarke feels that MC professors have risen to the challenge of restructuring their courses. She remarked how another Arches course has connected with Riverdale Neighborhood House and students are meeting via Zoom to help community seniors with their college application essays. 

“We’ve been talking to our community partners and saying, ‘how has this changed things for you, and how open are you to volunteers and are there different things that we can do for you’, and so some stuff has shifted online, some stuff we’re doing in person, but we’re much more careful about having PPE and maintaining social distancing that we know is safe,” Groarke said. 

The push to continue community-engaged learning comes from a dedication to help the community and give students real-life experiences, as well as social justice education. By engaging with the community, students are introduced to a new realm of self-reflection. Von Euw holds orientations for students participating in CEL and advises them to go into these experiences with a listening and a learning attitude, being mindful of their own expectations and limitations, their own identities that they carry as an individual, and how that impacts how they move through the world. 

Von Euw believes that students should be practicing this critical self-reflection before, during and after community engagement. She also expects students to demonstrate respect for diversity, including gender identity, race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, socio-economic levels or different cultural norms or ideologies that they might be encountering. 

By doing this, students can challenge their own biases, and assumptions they may make about whatever communities they’re working with or whatever issues they’re addressing.

“Cultural humility really asks people to practice critical self-reflection, and to think about reflecting on their own identities and biases, recognizing and challenging power imbalances that exist, and looking at institutions and systems,” Von Euw said.  “Cultural humility is a really powerful way of thinking how we are in a relationship with communities.”

Professor Wilson believes that putting lessons into a real-life context allows students to feel a greater sense of purpose and responsibility through their work. When students become involved in an issue or environment that they can see affecting others’ lives, they become much more invested in their work, as well as opening their eyes to new environments.

“[CEL] enables us to have these conversations about the differences between feeling comfortable in location and feeling safe in a location,” Wilson said. “You may not feel comfortable in a location because it’s not familiar to you, or it’s an area where you see some issues for poverty that you don’t see in neighborhoods that you typically spend time in. Feeling uncomfortable can actually open your eyes to the way that other people live, and their experiences and to what their lives are really like.”

Guilbeault has taken away similar sentiments after her time in arches courses. 

“I think that we should definitely be open-minded because we really don’t know what everyone goes through,” Guilbeault said. “A professor could describe something to us, but we could show up with a whole other idea than what’s really going to be in front of us.”

Von Euw, Groarke and Wilson all emphasize that social justice should be an important aspect of education in community-engaged learning. Through working with a multitude of community organizations in the Bronx area, including topics of affordable housing, voter registration, immigration and correctional facilities, students are faced with real-life situations. 

“The themes that I often work with have some connection to social justice because it should be a really important element of everyone’s life because it’s so central to humanity, and human dignity,” Wilson said. “[Arches is] one of students’ very first introductions to Manhattan College itself, the types of coursework we do, and also to our Lasallian mission, and social justice plays a huge role in that mission.”