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Service classes help students apply college learning to improving communities

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 26 2012 7:40 a.m. MST

Erin Olschewski, Gina Russo and Whitney Louder of the University of Utah's Bennion Center wrap Christmas presents.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Natalie Blanton had a typical small-town upbringing in Heber City, where most of her neighbors looked a lot like her and enjoyed similar comforts. For Blanton, it was a little too comfortable and too typical.

When she left home for college, she was eager to learn about other cultures and felt compelled to find ways of helping people whose lives had been neither comfortable nor safe. The University of Utah's Honors Think Tank on New American Communities gives her that chance — not just during the holiday season, but throughout a full academic year.

The "community engaged learning" class introduced her to refugee families in Salt Lake City who were forced to leave their homelands because of war, political strife and violence. The research and interviews she conducted this past semester will pave the way for next semester's volunteer projects to support grass-roots groups within refugee communities that help newcomers adapt to life in Utah.

On a recent afternoon, Blanton and nine other think tank members gathered desks into a circle and began talking about their shared involvement with refugee communities in Salt Lake City. Along with two professors, they shared a buffet of Tibetan food — a holiday celebration — as they gave accounts of new realizations.

One of the students said she was touched by contact with "nationless" children born in the camps on the Myanmar-Thai border. Another spoke of the shock she felt upon learning that a cluster of new arrivals to Salt Lake City already knew each other because they spent 20 years together in the same Bhutanese refugee camp.

A young man spoke of meeting parents who arbitrarily chose Jan. 1 as their children's birth dates for U.S. records — the chaos of their former lives made tracking their children's birthdays an expendable luxury.

Giving and learning

On nearly 12,000 U.S. college and university campuses, students can register for service-learning courses tied to almost any college major. A national coalition, Campus Compact, provides a network of support and research, but each school creates its own courses based on community needs.

At the U., engineering students help Utah's Department of Air Quality monitor air pollution and analyze data as part of planning to curb smog. Linguistics students provide translation services at health clinics for immigrants.

Education majors help with tutoring and reading programs in schools and journalism students help immigrants write their personal stories for community publications. There are many more service learning classes available at the U. and similar opportunities exist on thousands of campuses around the nation, according Campus Compact data.

Blanton's volunteer work with Salt Lake City's refugee support groups is building skills and connections that will make her more effective in her chosen career. She is a junior in social work and gender studies, working toward a job fighting sex trafficking — a scourge that too often victimizes vulnerable refugees, she said.

Serving beyond season

Service-learning classes — sometimes called "engaged learning" — let students apply book learning to real-world situations. Bright, passionate students infuse community groups with their energy, said Maureen Curley, national president of Campus Compact. And, the students benefit from new connections formed and real-world knowledge.

Although most campuses sponsor stand-alone service projects during the holiday season, many students across the nation seek a more lasting experience in giving. Service learning classes offer that opportunity and improve learning outcomes for the student at the same time.

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