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Change Agents

By Laura Janota >

Amanda Warren

Amanda Warren and 19 others in a Roosevelt University sociology class recently had their eyes opened while doing transformational service-learning at an elementary school on Chicago’s southwest side.

“I hadn’t been to an elementary school since I was a kid,” said Warren, who heard children insult one another’s mothers, taunt each other over their clothing and bully each other about being gay. “It was pretty intense, but I knew I wanted to help change things if I could,” she said.

She and others in Professor Heather Dalmage’s Sociology of Education class were trained how to diffuse conflicts, taking kids aside to talk through their disagreements and leading them in group discussions known as peace circles.

“Our goal is to shift the school culture so kids aren’t getting suspended or expelled, which can hurt their chances for success,” said Dalmage. As director of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation, Dalmage is working with Institute staff who have forged a three-year partnership aimed at overhauling the discipline philosophy at Morrill Elementary School.

Combining book knowledge with field experience, the course is among a growing number offering a service-learning component as part of the course work.

“We are seeing this type of learning being incorporated into a range of courses, from introductory classes up to advanced graduate seminars,” said Steven Meyers, professor of psychology and Mansfield professor at Roosevelt’s Mansfield Institute.

Transformational Learning Opportunities Abound

In the last three years, transformational learning at Roosevelt has exploded: 150 course sections now include a service-learning component, a five-fold increase over what was offered in 2009-10.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 students — the most ever in the history of the University — have recently done service as part of their course work.

“I absolutely loved the course and wanted to come back to lead the peace circles,” said Warren, who has seen kids who speak their minds in the circles shift from being angry when they walk in to laughing by the time they leave.

She and nine others who took the class have been continuing their work at Morrill, where a restorative-justice model for discipline has been continuing to evolve with help from students in a College of Education mental health counseling course led by Assistant Professor of Counseling and Human Services Kristina Peterson, as well as other courses and initiatives led by Roosevelt faculty members and the Mansfield Institute this academic year.

The model is already showing signs of success, according to Morrill Elementary School Principal Michael Beyers, and will continue to be fine-tuned in the fall when students in sociology courses taught by Dalmage and Assistant Professor of Sociology Alfred DeFreece do restorativejustice service at the school.

“At this point, transformational learning is being incorporated in courses throughout all six colleges at the University,” said Meyers, who has used the teaching method at universities since 1992. “What’s unique about it at Roosevelt,” he said, “is that these courses are aimed — much like the Morrill School experience — at helping the less fortunate while teaching Roosevelt students to work for social change.”

With its historic mission of social justice and a plan to strengthen its culture of student civic engagement, the University joined the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Bringing Theory to Practice Project (BToP) in 2009.

“We wanted to encourage more engagement in everything from our general education courses to our campus initiatives,” said Schaumburg Campus Provost Douglas Knerr, who worked with Meyers to obtain a $13,500 BToP grant.

The money has been used in part to facilitate workshops and broad discussion among faculty, administrators and students on ways that transformational learning can be applied anywhere, any time and in any discipline.

“Out of this work, we have seen a new focus emerge in which everyone at the University — no matter the discipline or the department — is on track to encourage students to grapple with social problems and become agents for change,” said Knerr.

A case in point is the Heller College of Business’s plan to create the Chicago area’s first social entrepreneurship major for undergraduates, as well as a social entrepreneurship concentration for MBA students.

More than 1000 Roosevelt students are doing some form of service this year

“Social entrepreneurship can help solve some of the world’s worst problems, and we believe — given the University’s mission — that it should be our college that leads the charge,” said Terri Friel, dean of the Heller College.

Hired in 2010, Raed Elaydi, the Amoco Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Management, has been laying groundwork for the new major and concentration. “On the first day of class, I walk into a room and say: ‘Who here wants to change the world?’” said Elaydi, who has already taught Social Entrepreneurship: The Acara Challenge, a competitive case-studies course, at Heller College.

“The majority of students raise their hands and I say: ‘That’s what you can major in at Roosevelt University. Social entrepreneurs change the world. They find a problem, create a solution and create the community around it.’”

In The Acara Challenge, students researched social problems in India, keying in on topics like malnutrition or lack of clean water, developing a plan and product that addresses the problem. During the course, Roosevelt students competed against teams from major universities across the nation. A winner was selected to go to India and implement its product/plan.

“We chose to build a sanitation station where people could have access to restroom facilities, safe water and information about safe water,” recalled Joyce Johnson, a 2011 business graduate who took the course.

The product/plan didn’t win the challenge, but Johnson had her eyes opened. “This course taught me that there are many, many people in other parts of the world who suffer.”

Number of Roosevelt courses that include a service-learning component

A Recommitment To Service Through Partnerships

Also,the University community will re-commit itself to service through a series of events and opportunities highlighting Roosevelt’s significant work with partners in the community.

“Service is ingrained in all that we do at Roosevelt and is an opportunity to raise awareness of the thoughtful, community-based partnerships and projects we've developed,” said Jennifer Tani, director of community engagement at Roosevelt.

In the end, partnerships forged between Roosevelt and community not-for-profits, schools, lawyers, judges, health organizations, lawmakers, faith-based groups and others are critical to the future success of Roosevelt and its students.

“We try to nurture partnerships by helping out wherever we are needed,” said Nancy Michaels, associate director at the Mansfield Institute, which now has multiple partners in its ongoing work to keep disadvantaged kids out of trouble, out of the prison pipeline and on track for college.

Recently, the Mansfield Institute started a fellowship program called the Mansfield Scholar Activist Program. It has paired 15 students and faculty members with five community partners in need of research to help make the case for alternative approaches in dealing with at-risk kids. Scholars and their faculty advisors are expected to make reports to partners later this spring.

“It’s an excellent foundation for us to build relationships that in the end help our students and help elevate Roosevelt as a social justice institution,” Michaels said.

From the Spring 2012 issue of Roosevelt Review.