Learning While Serving
A map of Dallas-Fort Worth nearly fills a wall in Geoff Whitcomb’s office. “It’s my reminder that up here on the Hilltop we are not operating in a vacuum,” says the assistant director of SMU’s Office of Leadership and Community Involvement. “We are interdependent with all of the communities surrounding us.”
Whitcomb helps connect the 2,500 students who volunteer each year through the office with more than 70 North Texas agencies. He also provides resources for the faculty members who teach service-learning courses, which supplement coursework with community service.
“Service teaches students to think critically and apply what they’re learning in the classroom to community issues,” Whitcomb says. “These experiences add a richness and depth to coursework.”
Service has been a critical component of SMU’s mission since its founding, and SMU faculty continue to apply their teaching and research to help solve issues in the community. Currently, faculty partner with nonprofit agencies, schools and government organizations to give students opportunities to serve and learn in North Texas. They also investigate complex challenges facing the region, often joining forces with community groups to find solutions. In addition, faculty make time to volunteer, advise student service organizations and mentor high school students on the path to college.
“With our intellectual resources, we can positively impact our city – our home base – while also providing real-world experiences for students,” says Provost Paul Ludden.
Experiences beyond the classroom lead to “engaged learning,” Ludden says. SMU’s new general education curriculum includes a “community engagement” requirement, which students can complete through a course or a learning activity in the community.
As part of its accreditation by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, SMU has proposed that all undergraduates be encouraged to participate in at least one extensive community learning activity before graduation.
“Engaged learning could comprise expanded and new community activities, from service-learning to research to practicums and internships, which would be coordinated by faculty and external mentors,” says Margaret Dunham, professor of computer science and engineering in the Lyle School of Engineering, who oversees the Universitywide implementation committee. “Students and faculty will see even more opportunities for service and learning in years to come.”
More Ways To Learn And Serve
CENTER FOR ACADEMIC-COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT Directed by Bruce Levy, the ACE Center in Dedman College supports teaching, research and activities that cultivate an understanding of complex urban and social issues. Since the center’s founding in 1991, more than 2,500 students have taken ACE courses while also volunteering in the community. In addition, four students live and work at the ACE House, becoming neighbors as well as volunteers.
EMBREY HUMAN RIGHTS PROGRAM The interdisciplinary program, directed by Rick Halperin, now offers 70 courses. Approximately 150 students are in the pipeline to graduate with a human rights minor from Dedman College. While studying and investigating universally recognized human rights in Dallas and around the world, students, faculty and staff also have engaged in thousands of service hours since the program’s launch in 2007.
CENTER FOR FAMILY COUNSELING The state-of-the-art center at SMU-in-Plano opened in 2008 and provides counseling services to the community on a sliding-fee scale. Graduate students in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development provide the counseling under the guidance and supervision of licensed faculty and staff. The center also provides mental health services in the Oak Lawn area of Dallas through a partnership with Resource Center of Dallas.
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Applauding The Impact Of Music
“Music is a way to reach underserved populations,” says Krout, a Meadows Distinguished Teaching Professor. “People with any disability and of any age – from premature infants to the very elderly – respond to music.”
A piano lesson with music therapy students.
Students also work at the Meadows School free music therapy clinic, where North Texas children and adults with special needs come to sing, dance and play instruments. Their weekly private and group sessions target specific objectives, such as speech and motor skills, social interaction and vocalization of emotions.
During her four years at SMU, senior Alison Etter has provided therapy to six adults with intellectually disabling conditions who have attended the clinic for 15 years.
“It was neat to hear from parents how much their children loved coming – that they would run up the stairs two at a time with smiles on their faces,” says Etter, who recently worked as an intern at San Antonio State Hospital and will earn her Bachelor’s degree in December. “I’ve been able to combine my love for music and teaching with my passion for caring for people.”
SMU offers the clinic as part of its partnership with the nonprofit organization Hugworks, based in Hurst, Texas, and founded in the 1980s by SMU alumni James Newton ’75 and Paul Hill ’72. Hugworks’ music therapists help mentor SMU students, who must complete 1,200 hours of supervised fieldwork before graduation and board exams.
J.W. Brown ’68, ’71 is president of the KidLinks Foundation, a Dallas nonprofit that supports Hugworks and its collaboration with SMU through golf tournaments and other fundraising events. “When you see the power of music to touch and heal, you can understand why there’s a huge need for music therapists across the country,” Brown says. “Robert Krout and the Meadows School are giving back to their community in a very unique way. We hope to expose more SMU students to this field and expand their education.”
The 20 students currently in the program take courses in psychology, anatomy and physiology in addition to music theory, history and performance, and they must be proficient in piano, voice and guitar.
“Our students don’t work for applause,” Krout says. “They’re focused on their clients’ progress. We’re teaching students not just about music therapy, but about being leaders in their fields and giving back to their communities.”
Learning Beyond The Classroom
Lynne Stokes, professor of statistical science in Dedman College, has made service a regular part of her courses for the past five years. Her students have created surveys and analyzed data for organizations including the Visiting Nurse Association of Texas and the City of Dallas.
The community garden outside Patterson Hall.
“So many nonprofits need help measuring their success, particularly for grant proposals, and that’s what we as statisticians do,” Stokes says. “At the same time, these experiences teach my students how to communicate with clients and translate real problems into statistics.”
Faculty members currently offer about 25 courses designated as service learning each year, including Latino/Latina Religions (Religious Studies), Social Action in Urban America (History), America’s Dilemma (Human Rights) and Literature of Minorities (English). The courses typically require students to perform community service with North Texas agencies and write papers about their experiences.
During spring 2010, the students in Stokes’ graduate-level Statistical Consulting course volunteered with the American Red Cross and Junior Achievement, which teaches the basics of business and finances at elementary schools.
In her work with the American Red Cross Southwest Blood Region-Texas, graduate student Peggy Zhai evaluated data on the value volunteers bring to the Dallas organization as drivers of blood supplies to hospitals, compared to using couriers and employees. “I was moved to see so many volunteers give their time and energy to the Red Cross,” she says. “I could show them the actual benefits they provide in terms of cost savings.”
Zhai also created a questionnaire about what motivates the volunteers to contribute and presented her findings to the organization’s leaders. “I learned I had to keep things simple and be able to explain difficult terms to people who aren’t statisticians.”
Suzanne Minc, who oversees volunteer recruitment and retention for the Southwest Blood Region, describes Stokes and her students as an asset to the organization. “Service learning gives students a unique perspective on the hard work it takes to meet the needs of patients who rely on blood donations,” she says. “The students become community advocates.”