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Students' worldviews change as they assist others

December 17, 2010

The term “win-win situation” may be overused, but it’s a perfect description of Doug Kelley’s service-learning class. Students in the Inner-City Families course, which the communication professor in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences has offered since 2004, volunteer with Phoenix-area community service organizations including Neighborhood Ministries, Chris-Town YMCA, Westside Food Bank, Shaw Butte Elementary School, and Sojourner Center. For many of these students, it’s a life-changing experience.

Students read literature regarding generational poverty; they also interact with guest speakers who cover topics addressing poverty, race and immigration and their impact on culture, education, spirituality and the family. But the “heart” of the Inner-City Families course experience is the time each week that students spend on-site assisting the embedded community organization they’ve been assigned to work with.

“Many of the students go into the class with a vague idea this is a ‘nice’ thing to do, but when they finish, they find that the experience has permanently changed their worldview,” said Kelley, who has been a faculty member at ASU’s West campus since 1994.

“The experience taught me that other people have thought processes that seem unnatural to me but are very much natural to them,” said Nafeesa DeFlorias, who just graduated with a B.A. in communication studies. DeFlorias spent the fall semester working with Neighborhood Ministries in downtown Phoenix as an assistant for Sunday school classes.

Neighborhood Ministries offers myriad outreach and empowerment programs, including after-school youth programs, basic food and clothing assistance, mentoring for teen mothers, a Head Start preschool program in partnership with the city of Phoenix, and medical and dental services provided through a separate onsite non-profit agency. The organization was one of the first to work with Kelley to place his students in volunteer positions.

“Students are drawn to this class because they want to put their hands and feet into action, applying what their heads and hearts have been learning to help address the overwhelming issues of our city,” said Kit Danley, president of Neighborhood Ministries.

“We receive these students in mid-process; many are ready to move beyond a school assignment to living what they profess,” Danley said. “This generation of students wants to make a difference. And Doug’s class offers them the tools and opportunities to step out before graduation and test the waters. We at Neighborhood Ministries love this partnership.”

Student Vivian Oros also worked with Neighborhood Ministries this fall, serving as a mentor to a young girl who lives in central Phoenix.

“During my very first meeting with my mentee, I was in awe at how this little girl had so much faith and had dreams to do bigger things with her life,” Oros said. “This amazing young girl thinks I was doing her a favor, but I am the one who gained the most from this experience. She gave me something I can never repay her for, by reminding me of life’s basic principles.”

The experience gained in Kelley’s class can help open doors for other opportunities. Student Frank Gracia took Inner-City Families in the spring of 2009 and worked with the Aguila Youth Leadership Institute, which focuses on helping disadvantaged youth work toward college. Kelley was sufficiently impressed by Gracia’s work to support his application for a Rodel Community Scholarship, which Gracia was selected to receive.

“I would recommend this class for anyone who wants to not only serve the community but also to develop leadership and critical thinking skills,” Gracia said. “My work with Aguila enabled me to network academically, professionally and personally.”

The hands-on nature of Inner-City Families doesn’t mean the course is lacking in academic requirements. In addition to assigned readings and guest speakers, course requirements include keeping a journal and preparing a final paper.

“Ironically, sometimes students who are the strongest academically find this course to be the most challenging,” Kelley said. “Because they are being asked to apply their knowledge and skills in an unfamiliar setting, some students can feel confused or disconnected during the first few weeks of the semester. But the vast majority work through those feelings and emerge with a greatly increased understanding of the dynamics of inner-city culture.”

Previous students have gone on to pursue careers in social work, psychology, family communication research, and teaching youth as a result of their experience in the course. Others have sought both domestic and international missionary service.

Kelley’s course has been incorporated into the educational mission of the Family Communication Consortium, a New College initiative that promotes healthy family communication through the collaborative research, teaching and service activities of ASU faculty and students.

Inner-City Families (CMN 498) is offered each fall and spring semester. Students may take the course for anywhere from one to three credit hours.