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New UM Initiative Uses Academic Resources to Solve Real-World Problems

Students in Associate Professor Michelle Maldonado's Guatemala: Its Land, Culture, and Religion course spent a week in San Lucas Toliman, working on community projects to improve the impoverished village. Above: Students clear boulders in a field to make way for a much-needed water purification system. The class is an example of the type of service-learning touted by UM's new Office of Civic and Community Engagement.

It had been almost a year since Tropical Storm Agatha spawned flash floods and mudslides in San Lucas Toliman, killing ten people and destroying dozens of homes in the impoverished Guatemalan community. Yet recovery was slow, and the village was still reeling from the disaster. Homes needed to be rebuilt, others stood in disrepair, and a water filtration system was urgently needed.

University of Miami student Nawara Alawa and ten of her classmates arrived at the small Central American community in early spring 2011 and almost immediately rolled up their sleeves, helping with construction projects, teaching villagers safe cooking methods, and carting away giant boulders to clear the way for the much-needed water purification project.

Their week’s worth of labor, expended over the spring break period, was part of Guatemala: Its Land, Culture, and Religion, a UM College of Arts and Sciences course with a strong service-learning component. “There’s only so much you can learn in the classroom,” Alawa, a junior, says of the importance of service-learning and civic engagement. “There’s a big difference between hearing about something and seeing it in front of you.”

Other courses and initiatives that immerse students in service-learning abound at UM. But finding out which schools, departments, and instructors offer and teach them is not always easy.

“There’s never been a central place where, if you’re a student and want to take a course that has a community-based component, you could find out about it,” says Robin Bachin, the Charlton W. Tebeau Associate Professor of History at UM.

Bachin leads a new initiative aimed at changing that. Launched over the summer, the Office of Civic and Community Engagement will leverage the University’s academic resources to address community needs and concerns. Among its goals:

  • Identify existing service-learning opportunities at the institution.
  • Foster stronger relationships between the University and the South Florida community.
  • Develop new courses with community-based components and integrate community engagement into existing ones.
  • Work closely with the Butler Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership Development to promote community service.
  • Forge partnerships among UM colleges, schools, centers, and outside entities to foster positive change in the community.

The office has limited funding, and Bachin says securing more financial support for the initiative is critical if its mission is to succeed. But despite the tight budget, it has already started to address Miami’s affordable housing crisis, brainstorming with local organizations about ways in which students could assist them, whether it be conducting research on government housing programs or helping displaced residents find new places to live.

The office’s Focus on Affordable Housing Initiative is also rolling out a series of public forums on the topic, inviting scholars, policymakers, architects, and other stakeholders to campus to discuss the issue. The first is scheduled for September 12 at 5 p.m. at the School of Architecture’s Glasgow Hall, where Alexander von Hoffman, senior research fellow at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies in the Graduate School of Design, will speak on the topic of “Housing Matters: America’s Quest for Decent Homes.”

The office also has identified about a dozen UM courses related to housing affordability. “The ultimate goal,” says Bachin, assistant provost for civic and community engagement, “is to produce a better body of research to fully understand the factors that have led to the housing crisis.”

Poverty, children’s health, aging, and immigration are other issues the office may address, according to Bachin. Existing programs at UM’s architecture, communication, education, law, and medical schools already tackle such problems. But while those efforts primarily involve graduate and professional students, the Office of Civic and Community Engagement is targeting undergraduate education.

A database on the office’s recently launched website lists about 100 undergraduate courses with a service-learning component and also includes projects, research opportunities, and internships with a community-based angle. The website’s contents are searchable by department, discipline, and faculty member.

UM junior Alawa took one such course last spring, traveling to San Lucas Toliman, where, with her ten classmates, she worked on social projects to help improve the Mayan community. While there, the premed major assisted two volunteer physicians from the U.S. who were operating free health care clinics on the outskirts of town.

The experience, says Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, the associate professor of religious studies who led the course, helped the students build “a sense of global solidarity with poor people.”

“It reinforced the notion that the classroom is not the only place for knowledge,” she said.

Among other examples of UM service-learning opportunities: Through the Spaces of Hope course created by Richard Grant, professor of geography and regional studies, students spend two weeks in South Africa teaching English, serving as role models, and organizing after-school programs for children in key urban areas such as Johannesburg, Soweto, Cape Town, and Stellenbosch. The course is run with assistance from the Amy Biehl Foundation, a Cape Town, South Africa-based nonprofit that works with children. Grant will accompany his next group of students to South Africa in 2012.

In Donn Tilson’s PR Campaigns class, students develop and implement a campaign for a local charity. Last year’s campaign, called Give Back Week, brought some 30 local charities to campus to recruit student, faculty, and staff volunteers to help with their projects. “At week’s end, the charities had signed up more than 300 volunteers,” said Tilson, an associate professor of public relations at the School of Communication. “It was the first time a community outreach of this size had ever been done at UM.”

Professor of History Donald Spivey gives students in all of his seminar and survey classes the option of either writing a research paper or devoting 40 hours of their time to a service-learning project at a local organization. Alonzo Mourning Charities, the Overtown Youth Center, and the YMCA are just some of the local organizations at which his students have volunteered.

It didn’t take much soul searching for Spivey to come up with the idea of incorporating community engagement into his courses. “I went back to what is really an old idea,” Spivey said, referring to his undergraduate years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when he tutored American history to elementary school students. “All of us should be involved in some kind of way, whatever skills you can bring, whether teaching kids history or helping them with science.”

And Professor of Architecture Rocco Ceo teaches a studio course in which students design and build a project for a local nonprofit, researching methods of construction and sustainable building practices as part of the endeavor. In the two years Ceo has offered the course, students have built an orchid sales pavilion and a mobile organic kitchen.

Noting national reports that place the city of Miami well behind other U.S. municipalities when it comes to civic well-being, Bachin says the launch of the Office of Civic and Community Engagement comes at the right time. Students, she says, must be civically engaged more than ever now that higher education is under scrutiny by those who question whether what is currently being taught in the classroom can be adapted to real-world experience.

Her office “is the kind of pedagogical model that educational reformers like John Dewey developed, which is the idea that there should not be a disconnect between learning and living, between theory and practical application, that all learning should be experiential, and that we should know how to apply what we learn to real-world settings,” Bachin says. “We want to be not just part of a trend but a leader.”


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