Freshmen explore complexities of poverty through volunteer service

by Marketing & Communications,

The assignments were uncomfortable and unfamiliar.

But for Courtney Stevens, that was the point.

“I wanted my students to understand the complexity of real-world efforts to address poverty,” says Stevens, an associate professor of psychology.

“I wanted them to feel the tension when they see things that make them uncomfortable, to consider alternate ways of approaching issues, and to know how to operate when faced with ambiguity.”

This fall, Stevens taught “Poverty & Public Policy: Implications for Education.” As part of the College Colloquium, her students helped the unemployed draft resumes. They counseled teenagers about the college application process, and they completed in-depth writing projects — which local agencies use to launch fundraising campaigns and secure grant funding.

For Stevens, the course was an opportunity to teach the meaning of Willamette’s motto, “Not Unto Ourselves Alone Are We Born.” It was also a way to connect her students’ experiences to something outside the classroom.

“I wanted them to meet and work alongside individuals affected by poverty, to bring an extra dimension to the class experience,” says Stevens, who received a minigrant from Willamette's Council on Diversity and Social Justice to support the service learning.

“I’ve been amazed at what my students have accomplished when given the latitude to engage with real issues in our community.”

Learning by Doing

Stevens’ College Colloquium is one of about 40 offered each fall to incoming freshmen. The courses are limited to 16 students who share the same interests and passions — whether that be music in the electronic age or cults and communes in Oregon.

In Stevens’ class, her students read articles on sociology, education, neuroscience and public policy to understand the nature of poverty in the United States and how it affects a child’s daily life.

They examined the creation of federally supported programs, including Head Start and Teach for America, and discussed whether such programs effectively reduce educational inequality.

They also volunteered and wrote papers for organizations that address poverty in the region.

For Hannah Levy ’15, the Poverty & Public Policy Colloquium shaped her Willamette experience — so much so that she returned three years later as a service-learning assistant.

“It was the first time a professor had asked me to look at the systems out there and think of better ideas,” says Levy about her freshman experience. “The class really challenged me to think outside of what I thought was normal.”

This year, Stevens divided her class into two groups. One partnered with Oregon’s largest farmworkers union, PCUN. Through PCUN’s TURNO program, the students mentored high school-aged youths in Woodburn about college life and brought the teens to Willamette to explore campus.

For their writing project, Stevens’ students researched common barriers immigrants face when pursuing a higher education — from lack of family support to documentation issues — and used that information to suggest ways in which TURNO could be improved.

Program organizer Jaime Arredondo ’05 says he was impressed by the students’ resolve and dedication. Not only did they gain insight into the lives of immigrant youths, they learned that they, as freshmen, can make a positive difference in their community.

“These particular students are overachievers and have high expectations,” Arredondo says. “I’ve always enjoyed being an ambassador of Willamette University in whatever capacity I can. This is like a second home for me, and this has been a great experience.”

Lasting Impressions

Stevens’ other group worked with Job Growers, a local workforce investment board that serves Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties.

For their volunteer projects, the students helped the organization move materials for a supply give away to local nonprofits. They helped the unemployed write resumes and apply for jobs at the Salem WorkSource Center. They also made burgers through Marion-Polk Food Share’s Better Burger Program, which provides vocational skills to at-risk youths while supplying a nutritious, low-cost protein source to the emergency food system.

For their writing projects, the Colloquium students researched the benefits of cognitive therapy on the chronically unemployed, focusing on issues facing young adults. They also explored ways to connect this generation of workers with needed job training.

Tony Frazier, executive director of Job Growers, says he was excited to partner with the Colloquium students and is grateful for their contributions.

“They did great work for us, and we will use their collection of information to write for grant funding,” he says. “This work will have a very real impact on people in this community.”

Inspired by Frazier, Aaron Oda ’18 continued his volunteer work with Job Growers after the class ended. He says Stevens’ course strengthened his resolve to work as a school counselor one day.

“Poverty has a lasting effect on children, even later in life. That’s something that stuck with me through this class,” he says. “Tony made me want to make a difference. The work has been very meaningful.”

Daniella Kim ’18 agrees, saying she never fully grasped the plights of the poor until she took Stevens’ class.

“I worked hands on with people in Salem, helping them write resumes and printing out papers,” she says. “Some were recently laid off. Some were very discouraged. The whole experience was really eye-opening for me.”

If anything, Kim says the class made her more appreciative of the advantages she had taken for granted.

“I came from a pretty enclosed bubble where everyone I knew was pretty much like me,” she says. “Now, I view the world in a different way. I realize how blessed I’ve been.”

Looking back on her own experience with the College Colloquium, Levy says its effects were long lasting. Not only did it influence the classes she went on to take at Willamette, it led her to work for the Office of Community Service Learning.

“Poverty spans across race and gender, so having that conversation at the beginning of my freshman year prompted me to continue that conversation across all areas of study,” says Levy, a history major. “It’s important to give students that catalyst, that introduction to how they can be engaged citizens.”

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