Engaged Learning: Matt Gayer, Health Literacy Dallas

The new program will build on elements of the new University Curriculum, which will debut in fall 2012. Starting then, students will be required to engage with local and global communities around issues of civic responsibility and cultural understanding either through coursework, volunteer opportunities, or study abroad. The Engaged Learning program takes students a step further: They can enhance their experiences through independently designed projects that require more depth and serious commitments of both time and effort. A major component of Engaged Learning requires the students to write reports about their projects, reflecting on their experiences. All students’ reports will be published in an online journal organized by Central University Libraries.

As SMU’s first director of Engaged Learning, Susan Kress serves as a facilitator who will build on experiential learning programs that already exist at SMU under a variety of names. She previously served
as SMU’s director of Education Abroad in the International Center.

“I’m eager to help the University broaden opportunities for engaged learning and to get students excited about trying out what they are learning in the classroom through real-life work,” Kress says. “Engaged learners explore who they want to be, not just what they want to do.”

Senior Matt Gayer, who served on the QEP Committee, is a prime example of a student who has channeled his academic interests into community engagement. Majoring in public policy and political science with minors in economics, human rights and biology and a certificate in leadership, he has become an advocate of health literacy, which seeks to help local residents understand health issues and to improve communication between health professionals and patients. He first saw the need after helping with a health literacy campaign in Jefferson County, Missouri, as a teenager. When he came to SMU, Gayer realized that Texas lacked health literacy leadership.

“Everyone, regardless of cultural or educational background, deserves an opportunity to understand their own health and to take steps to ensure a basic quality of life for themselves and their families,” Gayer says. A grant from SMU’s Big iDeas program, sponsored by the Provost’s office, enabled him to create the nonprofit organization, Health Literacy Dallas, in 2009.

Awarded a national Truman Scholarship, Gayer plans to earn a Master’s degree in public administration with a focus on health policy and work in the field of social justice. “One thing I have learned during leadership experiences inside and outside of SMU is to focus on individuals who need my help, rather than becoming lost in impersonal administrative issues,” he says.

“Today’s student population hungers for engagement inside and outside the classroom,” says Patricia Alvey, director of the Temerlin Advertising Institute in Meadows School of the Arts and chair of the search committee for a director of Engaged Learning. Universities across the nation are increasing opportunities for students to become involved with their communities, Alvey says. “SMU is not the first to emphasize this popular educational concept, and it won’t be the last, but the University hopes its program will grow into one of the best examples,” she adds.

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