Students headed in 'right direction' after D.C. Social Justice course

Some Penn State students who were a part of the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship Maymester course, from left to right, were Ava Santos Verdeflor, Owen Abbey, Luisina Kemanian-Leites and Alex Paoli. Credit: Submitted by Luisina Kemanian-LeitesAll Rights Reserved.

With classwork, presentations, discussion, touring and other planned activities, there was a lot for students from the Penn State College of Education and other University colleges to like about the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship trip to Washington, D.C., May 23-29. And with months of pandemic-induced restrictions somewhat eased, their instructors became reacquainted with what they love — actually teaching in person.

“I think a poignant moment was when on the first day that we were live in classrooms Efraín (Marimón), Brenda (Martinez, student advocate specialist and graduate student) and I, we shared moment of just … tearfulness —  emotion kind of came over us,” said Ashley Patterson, like Marimón, assistant professor of education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “As I was reflecting on it later, there was just something special and magical about being in a classroom with learners and sharing that space.”

Patterson said professors and students have been doing whatever has been necessary academically to live through and survive a pandemic. “I never have been a super huge proponent of Zoom learning, but I didn't allow myself to dwell in that space,” she said. “There's no benefit to every time I open my Zoom app thinking, ‘I hate this ... I wish we weren't doing this … this isn't real teaching’ — what is the point of that? I think I just hadn't allowed myself to covet what I knew was not a possibility. 

“Being back in the classroom came with this rush of emotions that marked the long-avoided acknowledgement of my true feelings … ‘this is what it's supposed to be … this is what I've been missing, and I haven't allowed myself to acknowledge I was missing it.’ And I know the program fellows felt the same because they said so. That for me is a success. Out of our whole week each Penn State student only spent about 3½ hours of it teaching in-person. But to be able to have those sparks, I think the time spent in D.C. was beyond worth it,” Patterson said.

Owen Abbey, a rising third-year student who is a secondary education social studies major with a minor in social justice in education, was quick to agree. “For starters, this was my first time ever teaching, so it has given me a basic overview of what it feels like to be a teacher and be a leader in this space,” he said. “But it has also given me a better understanding of the power of students.

“Students know so much about the world and have so many different lived experiences, but when they step into a classroom, they often get lectured at and talked down to. Just by having conversations with these students, I learned how much they truly know, and that it was really just my role to get them to think differently and critically about that information. That is why being student-centered is so important, because they can contribute to a space just as much as a teacher can.”

Abbey was one of 10 students in the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship Maymester course and subsequent trip to Washington. He and two other students, he said, applied to take the course in 2020 but the D.C. component was a victim of the pandemic. Those three and seven others — a handful not in the College of Education — this year realized some in-person teaching experience, albeit minimal.

They listened to guest speakers, met with stakeholders from a range of backgrounds and were hosted by a prestigious law firm on K Street in D.C. The group also took bus tours and walking tours around U Street, one of the original areas for Black middle class in Washington, and at the Southeast waterfront area, which is currently undergoing a second wave of revitalization.

One of the D.C. Public Schools with which the Penn State students interacted arranged a field trip to meet the Penn State contingent because its classroom sessions have been solely virtual. Another school, according to Patterson, arranged for some of its first-year students who had only limited access to their high school building (because of the pandemic) to take lessons from the Penn State students on a day that had been designated as time for “cohort building.” Throughout the rest of the week, Penn State students taught virtually at five different D.C. high schools.

The variety of opportunities available during the Maymester course appealed to students. “The DCSJ fellowship and teaching experience was still incredibly valuable,” said Luisina Kemanian-Leites, a third-year Paterno Fellow, Schreyer Honors College student and international politics major with minors in Arabic, Middle Eastern Studies, Spanish and Latin American Studies.

“Through my work as a research assistant in the Children, Media and Conflict Zones lab (in the Bellisario College of Communications), I have been exposed to the lack of educational opportunities for refugee youth. In the future, I would like to work on increasing access to education for refugee youth. I hope to work in a classroom or community center for refugee youth in Jordan in spring 2022. Taking this course and being in the classroom interacting with students gave me critical insights into pedagogical theories and educational policies, which I would not have been exposed to in my current academic program,” she said.

As an international politics major, Kemanian-Leites said she was hesitant to apply to the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship program because it seemed geared toward education students, but noted that the social justice component pulled her in. “We learned not only about social justice issues, but also created lesson plans around these issues and taught them to high school students. Despite the relevance and urgency of social justice issues, they are rarely part of a school’s curriculum,” she said.

The D.C. Fellowship also had an impact on Ava Santos Verdeflor, who will graduate in August with a degree in rehabilitation and human services and a minor in deafness and hearing studies after completing a summer internship at the Oaks, a senior living home in Pleasant Gap, near State College. Santos Verdeflor hopes to purse a master’s degree in social work at the University of Texas at Austin, she said.

“It was eye-opening to see firsthand how much it takes to create, develop and teach your own lesson plans,” Santos Verdeflor said. “I had always been interested in pursuing a career within the social justice field and I wanted to gain experience under the guidance of others with experience in the field already. I thought it was a great opportunity for me to help educate others about the topic I am interested in, and develop a plan to help bring positive change for what I believe in.”

Along with a Community Action Project the students worked on during the trip, they also researched and developed specific curricular topics throughout the semester.

Abbey’s topic was destigmatizing men’s mental health while Kemanian-Leites chose health care disparities in the Latinx community in the United States and Santos Verdeflor’s was prescription drug pricing in America and the lack of federal regulation on prescription drugs.

Between the course’s subject matter and the variety of topics available to discuss, and despite the pandemic-induced restrictions, Patterson thought the Maymester course was a success.

“Definitely I think it was a success,” she said. “It doesn't look like any other year we've done it and I would not likely sign up to do it in this format in the future, but for what it was this year, given our parameters and restrictions, I absolutely think it was a success. And enough cannot be said about how the students contributed to that success. We could not have asked for a more patient, accommodating, understanding, flexible, light-hearted group of participants and all of those qualities made the program viable given the conditions of this year.”

Students deemed the D.C. Social Justice Fellowship rewarding as well.

“I think that this course helped increase my knowledge of other social justice topics and encouraged me to want to do more research on things that I am not well educated on,” Santos Verdeflor said. “I believe that this course definitely helped motivate me to ask more questions and want to know more about other issues affecting the U.S. and the world.”

Kemanian-Leites said that students left the class with more questions than answers which, according to Patterson, was the overall intent. 

“We would be working through scenarios focused on one issue and when we would debrief, we began to identify more and more issues and connections we had not thought of when we were in a simulation. I think this was effective. After the class was over, I would still be thinking about an issue we had discussed,” Kemanian-Leites said.

Abbey said he learned a lot about himself in terms of who he is as a person, advocate and teacher.

“You also get real stories and real emotions when dealing with this kind of work, and it is super important to know that when you go into your own classroom,” he said. “This course is not designed for us to leave D.C. and be like ‘oh yeah, that’s how we solve racism’; that simply cannot happen over the course of two weeks. What can happen, however, is we learn to ask ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.

“We learn to dig deep into social justice topics to try and get to the root of the problem and dig up those roots. It is not enough to just put a Band-Aid on, since that is what has been done for centuries. If we want to see change, the system has to change. And it is OK that we don’t know how we are going to do that. That is why having these questions in our head is super important, because the fact that we are even thinking about them means we are heading in the right direction,” Abbey said.

Last Updated June 18, 2021