Service Learning

Lessons from the Greater Community 

North Park’s location in the lively city of Chicago provides students a wealth of opportunities to learn from the surrounding community. The University enhances this connection through the intentionally learning-based model of service learning. Charles Peterson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, described this model’s goal: "We want students and faculty engaging with the community in ways that bring this learning back to the classroom. We are working to strengthen the pedagogical aspects by applying critical, analytical methods to the experiential aspects of volunteering." For example, "We want students to learn lessons about the structures of wealth and poverty, to begin to examine how gaps develop. What are the issues in society that need or could benefit from the future actions of NPU students?"

For the past two years, Boaz Johnson, professor of biblical and theological studies, has been practicing service learning in his course "Justice in Biblical and Practical Theology." He said, "My students work with organizations like North Park Friendship Center or World Relief. They work with refugee families from Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, Sudan, and Congo. They learn stories of dysfunction in community, which these families have experienced. A 12-year-old boy will tell them that he had witnessed his father [being] killed by Burmese soldiers right in front of his eyes. They help mothers read simple things like the bills, and help teach them English."

But their volunteering doesn’t stop there. "They bring these rich experiences into the classroom," Johnson said, "and we seek to diagnose and address the complexity of issues from a biblical perspective. Texts like John 4, where Jesus encounters the outcast woman at the well, are great examples for students to learn how healing happens in community. I have seen some very profound changes take place in the lives and attitudes of my students. I have seen classroom sessions turn into times of deep community formation — on several occasions through tears."

Lida Nedilsky, professor of sociology, teaches a sociology/dialogue course, "Justice in Education." Her course begins with a set of questions: What are the ideals behind our educational system? What are the realities and the experiments through which people try to achieve those ideals? Some of her students go to nearby Hibbard Elementary School to find answers to these questions. She described her students’ service-learning experiences as "relational, dynamic, collaborative, and transformative. [The experiences] join [students’] school and future professional lives — they enter with lots of doubts and insecurities and leave with greater confidence about the future."

Nedilsky’s student Whitney Turner described the impact of her experiences: "Through volunteering at Hibbard Elementary School . . . I realized that . . . many North Parkers as well as families at Hibbard are on a similar journey. Students are often leaving the comforts of their families and homes to go to North Park to better their life and create better opportunities for themselves. Many Hibbard families have also uprooted from their homes, often in other countries, to seek better opportunities in Chicago. Through my volunteer work I have decided to further my education and get my master’s in special education so I can teach in an inner-city school and help provide stability to children and families in need."

Fellow student Brittany McKenzie added, "By experiencing Chicago, and not the touristy side of it, I have learned that there are deep historical ties to why the city is the way that it is . . . I appreciate differences in people, and I am a bit more understanding when it comes to new challenges."

Rachelle Ankney, professor of mathematics, has recently been named a "service-learning fellow" at North Park. Her role is to assist in setting up curricular collaboration between the programs of Urban Outreach (a branch of University Ministries) and a cohort of faculty who will use existing volunteer programs in service learning tailored to their courses. Ankney was the founder of the Justice League, now a part of the advocacy branch of Urban Outreach, through which alumni, faculty, and students reach out to the larger community to combat systemic injustice. 

Ankney’s course, "Just Math," provides a unique model for using service learning across the curriculum. Ankney described its development: "I wanted to tie my love of math and my personal passion for justice together, so I designed a course. It applies mathematical studies and techniques to examining systemic injustice in the housing system when we study personal finances, mortgages, amortization, etc.; racial and gender differences in education and income when we study probability and independence of events; and the characteristics of the Chicago population when we learn how to research mathematical data from the U.S. Census, understand the data, and represent it so others can understand it easily."

She makes a convincing case: "Service learning inserts reality into the equation. Classroom learning about systems issues and justice issues is just that: 'learning about,' whereas service learning is learning by doing. If service learning is done well, students’ stereotypes fall away, and they get to approach each neighbor as a real person with honest struggles and the hope and the willingness to work to address those struggles. Instead of 'helping those people,' students can join with our neighbors to fix a common problem with input from all stakeholders."

Next Steps

Return to the Winter 2012 North Parker online.

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