Students from the Schreyer Honors College work in a Philadelphia children's garden
alongside staff members from the Sarah Allen Community Center. The hardworking crew
was injecting some life into the neighborhood by planting new blooms.
Photo: Scott Johnson
Editor's note: (This is the second in a series of stories that profile some of the ways Penn State, outside the classroom, is making life better for people in Pennsylvania.)
By Karen Trimbath
Ask Deborah Taylor Thompson about how 10 Schreyer Honors College students improved a neglected children's garden in Philadelphia's inner city, and she'll tell you how one neighborhood blossomed.
As an employee of the nonprofit Friends Rehabilitation Project, which works with low-income residents in West Philadelphia, Taylor Thompson watched students pick up trash in the alley leading to the garden and plant new blooms.
"Their work added a lot of bright color to the garden," said Taylor Thompson. "They really served the community."
The students lived in West Philadelphia for a month and performed community service related to their academic majors for a class taught by associate professor of geography Lakshman Yapa. Yapa's class is titled "Rethinking Urban Geography." What the students did is called public scholarship -- combining volunteer activities with academics -- an idea that has taken root at Penn State and across the nation.
Simply put, the University wants to provide more opportunities like Yapa's class by continuing to build strong connections among faculty, students and local communities.
According to Jeremy Cohen, associate vice provost for undergraduate education, public scholarship is a great way for Penn State to teach its students to become good citizens and enter the work force ready for team projects. Helping students draw connections between their experiences and just-learned theories deepens their understanding of their course work and their place in the world, Cohen said.
"Service learning provides tremendous satisfaction to faculty and students," he said. "They're not zealots, but serious scholars who want to share their discoveries in ways that have consequence."
Nonprofit leaders throughout the Centre Region say that Penn State students directly benefit the community through their time and organization and put their skills to work for a real audience.
For example, Jim Foster, the principal of Mount Union Senior High School, can't say enough about a Penn State nutrition awareness group. The group, founded by nutrition/journalism major Annina Burns, spent a week teaching teen-agers at this rural school how to eat right and cut down on junk foods.
Burns is also a student in the Schreyer Honors College, which fosters responsible citizenship and encourages students to develop community service projects according to their interests, including service projects during spring and summer breaks. Burns is not receiving academic credit for her efforts at Mount Union, but other Schreyer students have performed thesis research that examines the larger implications of community needs.
This fall Schreyer students can elect to join a HOINA interest group, a student organization that focuses on support for two schools for homeless children in India. The schools were founded by Darlene Large, who was named a distinguished alumna in 1982. Schreyer students will have the option of traveling to India next summer to help out in the schools as well as perform research.
Although students at all Penn State campuses across the Commonwealth can find plenty of volunteering opportunities, integrating service learning so that students receive credit will take time, said Cohen.
One resource available now is the AT&T Center for Service Leadership in 101 HUB on the University Park campus. It already provides community liaisons for interested faculty and students who are assigned to find their own projects.
The center is sponsoring the Council of Lionhearts, a new organization of student service leaders who on Saturday, Aug. 29 will introduce the University's first-year students to volunteer opportunities throughout Centre County and help them reflect on the difference they made in people's lives.
"One experience, coordinated appropriately, can enable a student to grow, work with people, and be articulate about how their role benefits the community," said Carol German, director of the center. "Students develop a new filter for perceiving the world -- they enter adulthood."
German's conclusions match current thinking among researchers and teachers about the ways in which students learn best. To support public scholarship learning even further, the Office of Undergraduate Education sponsored a seven-member team this summer at the American Association for Higher Education summer academy in Colorado. According to Cohen, the team concluded that Penn State is fostering new levels of civic and intellectual participation through public scholarship.
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