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ASU class exposes students to volunteerism, community leadership

April 16, 2013

Students in Arizona State University’s College of Public Programs are growing their passion for service in new ways that take them out of the classroom and into the community. The Voluntary Action and Community Leadership (NLM 160) class provides a unique opportunity for students to learn and have an impact on important societal issues, combining in-class learning with a real-world volunteer experience.

NLM 160 students gain a deeper understanding of the role and value of volunteer action within American society and build their capacity and confidence to tackle community issues and needs, said Mikulas Pstross, who instructs the class with fellow doctoral student Erika Sung.

“Students who take this class are interested in the issues facing society today,” said Pstross. “This course builds on the energy the students already have and provides a place to explore those issues and serve the community at the same time.”

Students accomplish this through a combination of activities, including “Bookworm Mondays” during which they participate in weekly, instructor-guided discussions focused on the larger themes of the class, such as volunteering across generations, civic engagement and politics and communities as systems. On “Activity Wednesdays” students take part in workshops and activities related to voluntary engagement and community leadership and prepare to fulfill two 5-hour nonprofit volunteer experience requirements.

Normally, both volunteer requirements are met at a local nonprofit selected independently by each student. However, in the middle of this semester the students in Pstross’ class have embraced the Salvation Army’s Laura Danieli Senior Activity Center as the focus of a class-wide community project.

Located at  613 N. 4th Avenue, just west of ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, the Laura Danieli Senior Activity Center strives to assist seniors with maintaining their quality of life, offering a variety of services to enhance personal growth and health, as well as increase social fellowship among senior citizens ages 62-years of age and older. 

The ASU students in the class have organized themselves into nine teams responsible for coordinating and providing a range of services to the seniors engaged at the center.

Brittany Garcia, a freshman social work major and member of Barrett, the Honors College, leads the Intergenerational Dialogue group, whose focus is to spend time with the seniors getting to know them and learning about their lives and interests.

On a recent Monday morning after class, Garcia and fellow team member Sarah Manyiel, a junior English major, made the short trip from the campus to the senior center for a visit. Rose Meyers, who said she spends time at the center daily Monday through Friday, had just opened a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. She happily invited the young college students to pull up a chair and join her in assembling the intricate bits and pieces, sharing brief vignettes from her life and her trade secrets for solving puzzles.  

“One of the major takeaways from this experience is that the seniors – or ‘life experts’ as we refer to them in our class – are not much different from my generation,” Garcia said. “For example, many of them had similar experiences to me when they were growing up and even today many of them are aware of social media, and some even have social media profiles.”

Garcia aspires to a career in gerontological social work, with a focus on helping to maintain and enhance the quality of life of older adults and their families.

A San Diego native, Garcia said the volunteer experience has been especially relevant to her life and career aspirations.

“As a social worker, I will have to interact with people of different ages, and I will have to build bridges,” she said. “I feel like this experience has given me an insight into what my future career could potentially be like.”

Additional teams from the NLM 160 class include fundraising, user survey, volunteer recruitment, journalism, social media and two cultural event teams. An end-of-project celebration team is planning a culminating activity which will take place at the center on April 17.

Gary Allred-Hudspeth, a sophomore nonprofit leadership and management major is leading the class social media group that teamed-up to design and present a workshop for the seniors interested in exploring Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels as a means for connecting with friends and family.  

“Like many people, I want my life and work to have meaning,” Allred-Hudspeth said. “Maximizing the potential of a community and its resources gives me the sense of purpose that I seek. This opportunity has given me a chance to develop professionally through a direct application of knowledge gained in the classroom, in turn, adding to the value of the information.”

Pstross said the collaboration has far exceeded his expectations for the project on all accounts and is encouraging a long-term commitment to service. In fact, nonprofit leadership and management senior Marco Mendoza, who was the inspiration for the class-wide project at the Danieli Center, took the class a few years ago. It was Mendoza who made the initial contact at the center, recognized the significant potential for volunteer engagement and approached Pstross about making the center the focus of the NLM 160 class this spring.

“Marco has made long-term plans for his engagement at the center and is looking for others who’d like to join him as volunteers,” Pstross said.

“Through this project, we are beginning to build bridges with a senior population in our community. And we are learning to think of the seniors not as people who need help, but as people we can learn from,” Pstross said.