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The Importance of Real Stakes: Benefiting the Community Through Service Learning

April 19, 2017

Portrait of Andrea Shada

Portrait of Andrea Shada
Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency

Small Group Communication (COMM 3411) gives students a unique opportunity to explore challenging issues and generate innovative ideas and solutions outside of the academic setting. Taught by Senior Teaching Specialist Andrea Shada, the class has a service learning component which engages students with community and nonprofit organizations. In the fall of 2013, Shada's class assisted an alternative high school in Dinkytown. Her students worked to uncover why the high school students weren't eating in the lunchroom, even though some students had access to reduced-cost or free lunches.

The class worked as a collaborative group to tackle the issue. First, they performed interviews with students and conducted research on what would make a space more attractive for eating. The class formed a solution that included painting the lunchroom in order to make it more welcoming to students. The students in the class painted the entire lunchroom themselves and from their research were able to cater the design to what would appeal to the high school students. The high school now has a beautifully decorated lunchroom, resulting in an increase in the amount of students who ate at school.

Embedding service learning into small group communication helps students establish relationships with organizations in the greater Twin Cities community while also highlighting the skills of CLA students at the University of Minnesota. "I live for the light bulb moment," says Shada, describing the moment when she sees her students learn something new and apply it to real world problems. "If you put real stakes in front of them, the students become more invested in the learning," she explains. Shada says the most rewarding part of teaching a class with a service learning component is seeing how students rise to the occasion to help organizations with limited resources, such as nonprofits that can't afford to hire professional consultants, and the fact that students gain professional experience.

Nearly three years after the lunchroom project, in fall of 2016, students worked on a project with the Southeast Como Improvement Association (SECIA). The group worked with SECIA on their "Flowers are the Opposite of Graffiti" campaign, which wraps utility boxes in printed photos of flowers and plants. During the project, the group went door-to-door to gather votes on different box designs, created a Facebook page to spread awareness, designed and distributed paper flyers, and reached out to local business to connect them with Como neighborhood residents.

A student from this project, Alyssa Lee, provides an account of her experiences in the class. "I learned that organizations that are mainly composed of older individuals can be reluctant to try new technology, like creating a social media presence," Alyssa says. Alyssa learned that the best way to connect to the community is to get out in the neighborhood and start talking with people face-to-face. "It was truly rewarding to gain a sense of making a difference in a real community that I've learned so much about."

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.