Elizabeth Otto and Kim Heikkila

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Elizabeth Otto and Kim Heikkila

Elizabeth Otto’s Communication Dynamics course & Kim Heikkila’s History of the 1960s course

Working with Elders in the Communityotto-heikkila.jpg

Fall semester 2013, students in two service-learning courses forged relationships with elders. Elizabeth Otto’s Communication Dynamics students practiced their conversation skills within the Active Seniors program at Keystone Community Services. Students in Kim Heikkila’s History of the 1960s course interviewed Carondelet Village residents.

Dominique Staupe ’13, a student in History of the 1960s, met her service-learning assignment with enthusiasm. “I was very excited when I found out there was a service-learning component at Carondelet Village. I had a service-learning experience there as part of The Reflective Woman when I was a freshman.” History students have had two short visits at Carondelet Village early in the semester to meet their interviewees, prepared specific questions for an oral history interview in November and then presented back to residents what they learned in December. As Staupe describes, “my project encompassed women's issues that [my interviewee] experienced—reform gave women in church more duties and value, so I am relating her story to the women’s movement.”

Heikkila and Otto appreciated the way service-learning allowed their students to test their knowledge outside of the classroom. Communication Dynamics students were able to practice their communication skills by meeting with elders in large and small groups, as well as one-on-one. Students were also able to think critically about what they have learned in the classroom.

“Books are only telling part of the story,” Heikkila suggests. “It is important for the students to go out into the community to figure out how what we read about in history books compares to the lived experience of regular people.”

Both faculty members mentioned additional benefits to engaging in service-learning. Otto views service-learning as an opportunity to break down barriers between people from different backgrounds. “At St. Kate's, we define communication in part as our fundamental tool for constructing more fulfilling relationships and more just societies. My students are learning that people are very different, and we have different styles of communicating and different expectations based on our experiences. However, the important lesson is that these differences may require some mindfulness and flexibility in communication skills, but they do not create insurmountable barriers to relationships.”

Heikkila suggests that on a basic level, most people do not get a chance to sit down and reflect on their lives. Conducting an oral history project creates space for people to tell their stories. “The students have a chance to do history, not just sit and passively consume it. [They] are out there creating the historical perspective.” The stories documented through the oral history will be shared, as Andrez Rush ’16 reports: “I am really looking forward to the event at Carondelet Village when we—the class—present to the residents who we interview.”

Both faculty members agree that the intellectual, personal, and social benefits of service-learning outweigh any extra preparation needed. “I can give the most brilliant lecture possible about listening skills or perceptions or differences in conversational styles, but that lecture won't have as much impact as one good conversation with a Keystone partner,” Otto admits. “Without this CWL project, my class would truly be incomplete.”