Students Learn, Give Back and Grow: Community Engaged Learning at MC

By Nicole Fitzsimmons, News Editor

The community engaged learning program at Manhattan College offers students ways to learn their course curriculum in an enhanced way by stepping out of the classroom and into the community — putting classroom lessons into practice.

While community engaged learning is not necessarily unique to Manhattan College, the college’s location in the heart of Riverdale allows for students to truly make a difference in NYC and see the surrounding areas outside of campus.

“There’s lots of community engaged learning programs at different schools, and they’re all a little bit different,” Jacquie Martin, coordinator of social action and campus ministry, said. “But I think, what could be uncommon for us, it’s where we are, right? Like, we’re in this context. Not everyone is in the Bronx, in this community. And so, being able to really connect with the local community and get to see it in a different way.”

The community engaged learning program, which used to be called service learning, has a unique place in the social justice history of the college. Lois Harr, former director of social action and campus ministry with a deep passion for service work, is still teaching the community engaged learning course she has been teaching since the 1990s.

The course she teaches is called “Urban America and Catholic Social Teaching,” and counts as a religious studies course. Yet, while students learn about the foundational Catholic social teachings, they also pair up with a local community service nonprofit organization in the area to see these teachings in practice.

“That’s what makes community engaged learning different, or what we call service learning, like I said, is that it’s tied to a course, and it’s supposed to help you learn the course content better,” Harr said. “That’s what officially people will say, and then my interpretation is that it should help you think about how to do things in the rest of your life too. You know, you understand the idea that human dignity, or the common good, or subsidiarity or solidarity are really important. Well, when you leave my classroom, I hope you still think that you know, and, as a peace studies major, you can’t just leave peace, peace and justice studies at the door of the classroom, right? You take it with you and you put an action in the world.”

In the course, students write weekly reflections of their community service experience with a final reflection paper to connect the larger ideas of the foundational curriculum of the Catholic principles and the student’s experiences.

Jana Clark, senior communications major, is currently enrolled in Urban America and Catholic Social Teaching. She chose to work with POTS (Part of the Solution), an organization which provides various services to the local Bronx community, such as hot meals, job employment opportunities and affordable housing connections.

“The courses are focused on Catholic Social Teaching, which teaches us a lot about principles like human dignity, care for another person, things like that,” Clark said. “Having these volunteer opportunities, where people volunteer at POTS, at Bedford Community Service, other places like that, and being in those locations, allows us to actually see what we’re learning in the classroom apply to real life. Going back to the whole principle of human dignity and that everyone deserves equal respect and opportunity, and that there’s organizations that are actually fighting to do that. And it’s really cool to be a part of that.”

Clark emphasizes that community engaged learning has helped her strengthen her knowledge and experience within her community.

“I think it’s great, because I mean, it allows you to get to know your community and actually immerse yourself in it, because it can be easy to just stick to campus and like, stick to the area around us, like in the Riverdale area and do things around here,” Clark said. “But having these opportunities lets you expand upon that and really let you immerse yourself and get to know the area that you’re living in a lot better, and also the people too.”

Freshmen at Manhattan are also encouraged to register into the Arches program, which is a community on campus where students live in the same building and learn together in ways that expand their experience as freshmen in New York City.

Students will take excursions throughout their freshmen year to places in the city, yet are also eligible to take special Arches courses, which include these community engaged learning features.

Emmett Ryan, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of English, has an Arches section of the “First Year Composition” course, in which he expands the curriculum of this foundational writing course into a memorable community engaged experience.

As part of the course, Ryan takes students to an open mic night in the East Village where they hear people in New York City tell their stories. These stories can work as inspiration for the students, where in some semesters, Ryan assigns the students to write their own book.

Yet, the course also lets the students give back to their communities directly, such as with the Riverdale Neighborhood house or with afterschool programs at local high schools, which allows for students to help others while engaging with course materials.

“I look at it as a symbiotic relationship. It’s kind of a two way street for learning where my students get a lot out of it and then also, the teens we work with benefit from it as well,” Ryan said. “Because we do, for example, things like college essay writing workshops in the fall. So for juniors and seniors who are applying to college, my students develop a workshop to help give best practices on how to write an effective college essay, and then provide one on one workshop and support for them throughout the semester, where they can schedule an appointment with one of my students and get feedback on the writing process for that. And, we do other things like that. But the work we do with our partner is centered around writing or literacy. So it’s connected to the English 110 class in some way, too.”

These community engaged learning courses truly illuminate the Lasallian values of the college while furthering the mission of social justice on campus, such as the mission of the community partnerships committee of the Diversity Council.

“I think it helps us live our principles, and those Lasallian points of the star, you know. The faculty who do it seem to really enjoy it, and they’ve learned a lot about the Bronx,” Harr said.

Harr also told The Quadrangle how the American Association for Higher Education regards community engaged learning as high impact learning, something which former provost, William Clyde, and former assistant director of community partnerships, Kathleen Von Euw, really helped grow on campus.

The Office of Social Action and Campus Ministry hope to offer more training for professors of these courses in the future and also hopes to be able to help provide robust community engaged learning opportunities for the whole student body.

“[We want to focus on] just like giving more support, so that each of the classes that already exist, can be like the best that they can possibly be,” Martin said. “And I think another big thing we think about with all of our community engaged programs, is having it be mutually beneficial. So obviously, the students are getting a lot out of this by having a real experience in the world. But whatever organization, or nonprofit, that we’re working with, we want to make sure that we’re meeting the needs that they have, too.”