1 of 8
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Erin Olschewski, Gina Russo and Whitney Louder of the University of Utah's Bennion Center wrap Christmas presents.
The faculty works with community partners as directly as possible to create projects that reinforce learning outcomes for students, but are also reciprocal for the organizations. —Nancy Basinger

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.

At Missouri State University, archaeology students partnered with the Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum for a course integrating service with learning. Each student gave more than 70 hours of service while excavating and documenting the remains of a house built by former slaves in the 1870s or 1880s.

At California's Glendale Community College, students shared their expertise with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to help community non-profit groups increase their outreach programs.

"This is about becoming a good active citizen functioning in a democracy," Curley said. "These experiences will help graduates as they take jobs, serve on community boards and have children in school systems. This is all part of how our democracy runs. If we are not participatory, we can lose the things that are so sacred to us."

Service-learning is identified by the National Survey of Student Engagement as promoting deep learning and personal development. Active and collaborative learning is one of the most consistent predictors of persistence, self-reported learning gains and high gradepoint average, according to the Community College Survey of Student Engagement. Those aren't the reasons Natalie Blanton signed up for the U.'s Honors Think Tank on New American Communities, however.

A two-way channel

Blanton appreciates being able to connect her own research on social problems to the lives of real people. Knowledge has flowed through a two-way channel while she and her fellow students have formed relationships in refugee communities, she said. She looks forward to seeing that effort bear fruit next semester when class members work directly with community groups to aid refugees in adapting to Utah life.

"The faculty works with community partners as directly as possible to create projects that reinforce learning outcomes for students, but are also reciprocal for the organizations," said public administration professor Nancy Basinger, who co-teaches the U. think tank with social work professor Rosemarie Hunter. "We try to avoid that 'ivory tower' connotation, where people from the university are coming in and telling a community what to do."

"Based on research nationally, the students have a deeper level of understanding of course material if they have had an opportunity to engage with the material in an applied way," Basinger said. " They can apply it in the future in ways they couldn't with a more traditional lecture format."

Interaction with Salt Lake City's refugee communities brought Blanton to a similar conclusion. Doing engaged learning projects in social work has transformed her college major from a passive field of study to an active process that is exhilarating and satisfying.

"I'm learning from another human being, not a dissertation or huge book," she said. "I've learned to really value the people I come in contact with and I'm excited to take that forward. I've learned about cooperation and the adaptation it takes to work with a team. It's nice to learn how to harness those things and use them for good."

Email: [email protected]