When University photographer Jean Santopatre wanted to make changes in her photojournalism course, she remembered how much students had learned while she served as co-leader of mission trips. She decided to bring such an experience a little closer to Fairfield.

“When I see students immersing themselves into culture and community it is unwritten what they learn,” said Santopatre, an adjunct professor in the English department. “No amount of teaching can prepare; it is self-learning and self-exploration – that is the beauty.”

Santopatre’s course is one of five service learning courses being offered this spring, tying classroom learning to the Greater Bridgeport Area, as the two-year-old program continues to grow.

Many students who have participated in service learning courses and said it was a good learning experience that benefitted them as well as the community.

Meg Wilgucki ’09 remembered how attached and excited the children got when the she and the others in the developmental psychology class, taught by professor Judith Primavera, went to a Head Start program in Bridgeport to assist teachers.

“It was a really rewarding experience to work with the children,” said Wilgucki. “Being able to observe hands-on what we were learning in the book made the textbook information more understandable.”

Assistant Director of the Center for Faith and Public Life and Office of Service Learning Melissa Quan said in an e-mail that it is a “mutual/reciprocal partnership.”

“An important value in service learning is that the service component has to be meaningful for both the student and community,” she said.

Fairfield’s service learning program has been building over the years.

“While we’ve only had a formal service learning program for under two years, we already are known as an institution with a strong commitment backed by substantial resources,” said Robin Crabtree, director of Service Learning at Fairfield.

Crabtree and Quan agreed that even before this time there were faculty who had incorporated community-based teaching and learning as part of their courses in numerous areas of study at Fairfield.

“There was a push from faculty who had already incorporated service and wanted more support. The center, as well as University President Fr. Jeffrey von Arx has been giving that support,” said Quan.

Crabtree said the office of Service Learning offers a number of incentives and faculty development opportunities to increase the number of courses.

Santopatre said that there are benefits for both students and the community with these types of courses.

“It is give and take,” said Santopatre. “I hope the students will act as a type of mentor to the younger kids they work with.”

In Santopatre’s photojournalism class, students will work on photo documentaries with the children of St. Ann’s school in Bridgeport. They will document families who have immigrated to the country.

Service learning goals are consistent with Fairfield’s Jesuit mission to educate men and women for others, said Crabtree.

“It has been a growing movement in the U.S., and it is part of a call for institutions of higher education to be more accountable to local communities and to educate students to be more knowledgeable about their communities, more interested in civic life and activities, and more capable to participate in service and civic life,” she said.

Fairfield is among many schools across the country to incorporate a service learning pedagogy.

Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California offers a sociology class that requires students to go into a tough neighborhood in San Francisco and organize events for children and community members, according to an article in the Oakland Tribune .

In the article, the professor of the class, Don Sannard-Friel, said: “The buzzword is community engagement. It’s using the community as a classroom. There are reciprocal benefits. Students get a depth of learning they otherwise wouldn’t get, and they are making a public contribution.”

According to the Loyola University Chicago Web site, they offer a Magis Scholar program that recognizes a student’s commitment to community engagement and leadership. Students in this program take part in a structured four-year program that connects values through classes, co-curricular activities, retreats and group meetings, and are recognized at graduation.

Even graduates of Fairfield recall their service outside the classroom as giving them real world experience and encouraging them to take advantage of the opportunities available.

“We were placed in a situation that a journalist could face any day on the job, and this was more valuable than anything you can learn in a class. Additionally, we saw the results of our work,” said Ashleigh Egan ’05, who participated in a Freedom of Information law (FOI) compliance project in a contemporary journalism course in 2005. The project generated front page headlines throughout Fairfield County when newspapers detailed which communities were not in compliance with the state FOI law.

Kelly Sheehan ’06, who also participated in the project, offered this advice: “Put your heart into it. This is an opportunity to interact with the surrounding community and experience a profession you might otherwise never discover your interest in.”

“In five years we hope that all departments and programs will have at least one service learning course and that most Fairfield University graduates will have taken at least one in their major, minor, core or as an elective,” said Crabtree.

Santopatre said she hopes the service learning requirement of her course adds a new dimension to students. “I want to help prepare them for things you can’t teach them,” she said.

Learn more about service learning programs here

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