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Poverty Class Pays Off for Students, Communities

Posted by struscott | July 10, 2008

In Republic, Wash., an anti-poverty group needed a Web expert.

In Pullman, WSU instructor Mary Garcia needed a way to enhance her online “Families in Poverty” class.

Washington State University brought the two together in a happy symbiosis.

About a year ago, Garcia began thinking about requiring her Human Development 403 students to perform 20 hours of community service.

“There’s a big difference between reading about homelessness and going to a shelter, feeding the homeless and hearing their stories,” Garcia said. “It opens students’ eyes.”

Distance Degree Programs instructional designer Valeria Pietz embraced the plan.

University students can do more than stack boxes at a food bank – “We can tap into their brain power,” Pietz said – and the service requirement fit the course’s goal of “making a concrete impact on poverty.”

Civic Engagement

They called in WSU’s Center for Civic Engagement, which works with Extension offices through a partnership called the Statewide Service Learning program.

“The center hit the ground running,” Pietz said, and created a list of service opportunities for the Spring 2008 class.

The 80 students in the class, many of whom found their own opportunities, worked at a variety of community organizations, including:

  • KinderCare 871 (Kent, Wash.);
  • United Labor Agency of Nevada (Las Vegas);
  • Malheur Commission on Children and Families (Ontario, Ore.)
  • Dayton School District Integrated Preschool (Dayton, Wash.);
  • YWCA Back to Work Boutique (Bellingham, Wash.)

Web Master to the Rescue

In Ferry County, the city of Republic has been struggling with the loss of mining and timber jobs. The local community aid group, Horizons, works to connect residents and resources, but had just lost a key asset, someone to update its Web site.

Republic, Washington
Photo: Brian Maki

HD 403 student Amber Luttrell came to the rescue.

“Though Horizons, you give back to your community and help the less fortunate become fortunate,” said Luttrell, a 2008 distance education social sciences graduate. Luttrell said she was fortunate, too.

“It gives you a sense of satisfaction to help someone,” Luttrell said. “It teaches you about the other side of life. It creates empathy and understanding.”

Luttrell “was a tremendous help,” said Horizons Community Coach Krisan LeHew. “I’d love to get her back.”

Ongoing Engagement

More help may be on the way. All the community groups involved registered with WSU, creating a database for the next class.

While the concept of databases may be relatively new, the university’s mission of helping communities goes back to 1890, and is part of WSU’s role as a land-grant university.

“The common objectives of most land grant institutions were teaching, research and public service,” said Muriel Oaks, dean of CDPE.

That idea of public service has evolved in the last 100 years. Universities now work more in partnership in communities, instead of being seen as ivory towers, dispensing wisdom to the populace.

“It’s no longer just the university applying knowledge in communities, it’s also learning from the communities,” Oaks said. “It’s a two-way street.”

The terminology has also changed. The phrase “public service” is being replaced by “engagement,” which is more collaborative and reflects what the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching describes as the “mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.”

Pietz sees a lasting impact from that partnership, with distance-degree-program students becoming both inspired and empowered to create change.

“Students learn to say: ‘I can help people get jobs, design a Web site. I can make an impact on a broader level because I’m a Coug.”

By Richard H. Miller, WSU Center for Distance and Professional Education

For more information on WSU’s program in human development, please visit: http://hd.wsu.edu/.

For more information on WSU’s Center for Distance and Professional Education, please visit: http://online.wsu.edu/.

Mary Garcia

Mary Garcia
Photo: Brian Maki