One Year Later
Reflecting Back and Looking Forward
Dr. Eleni Roulis, Associate Vice President for Academic Services and Special Programs
Underpinned by the legacy of its rich history, service-learning at the University of St. Thomas has continuously grown into a dynamic and vital component of campus life both from curricular and co-curricular vantage points over the past year. I look back on this year and marvel at all that has been accomplished. Service-learning is certainly now one of the jewels of our university. We recognized and acted upon the need to integrate service-learning and community engagement into a collaborative educational experience for all stakeholders, including faculty, staff, students and community partners. From an institutional perspective, President Father Dease and Executive Vice President/Chief Academic Officer Sue Huber have been unwavering in their support. They have encouraged all of us to pursue our intellectual, theological, and philosophical interests to reflect the mission of St. Thomas, to meet our educational goals, and to make a difference in our communities.
In concert with the Deans, Father Dease and Dr. Huber have supported the new initiatives undertaken by the Office of Service-Learning (OSL) this year by providing both human and financial resources. In return, the OSL has provided the St. Thomas community with a foundation for development of critical analytical, reflective, interpersonal, and leadership skills that link our classrooms and institution with real world experience. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which serves as a national policy analysis and research center for higher education, selected 76 U.S. colleges and universities in 2006, including the University of St. Thomas, for its new “Community Engagement” classification. Institutions participating in this elective classification developed active models of engagement around teaching and learning and around research agendas that benefit from collaborative relationships of many varieties. St. Thomas is in a new class of distinction that supports our mission and showcases our commitment to work with diverse communities and to develop deeper intercultural understanding in our students and wider campus community.
A great deal has been accomplished since the OSL’s origination in 1996, and the awarding of the Carnegie designation in 2006. We know that as our world becomes more intricately connected and globally aware, the horizons of service-learning will continue to expand. We are living in a time of new ways of life, even as new systems of community and government are emerging. In the unfolding of this new collective wisdom now shaping the human spirit, I believe we will see a wonderful abundance of possibilities and expansions of our work in the coming years.
In one of Rumi’s discourses with members of his dervish learning community, he wrote, “When the ‘I’ becomes ‘We,’ there is a community of the spirit. Join it, and feel the delight of walking in the noisy street and being the noise.”
I am very grateful to have walked down “the noisy street” with the diligent work of Dr. Kimberly Vrudny, Associate Professor of Theology and Interim Director for the Office of Service-Learning. She has undertaken and guided monumental movements to fulfill the changes suggested in the 2006 self-study report. The work of the last year has enhanced and exemplified the UST service-learning community even more fully and comprehensively. Additionally, the Service-Learning Advisory Board worked tirelessly to expand the boundaries of service-learning as we know it today. The twenty member Board committed to meet six times per year; it expanded to include more voices of graduate faculty and community members; it formalized and ratified its constitution and by-laws; it developed subcommittees to look at deepening the work of service-learning; and it is well positioned to look critically into the numerous aspects of service-learning that will advance the common good by utilizing 21st-century models for advancement and growth.
Among the many successes this year: Dr. Vrudny formed a book club that meets twice per semester to discuss relevant issues and books on social justice. She worked with Campus Compact Director Dr. Julie Plaut to organize a six-month publishing workshop attended by seven faculty who are committed to publishing an article on service-learning. She created two new faculty service-learning workshops. And she has created this newsletter, The Service-Learning Companion, which will be published twice per semester. As if all of the above were not enough, Dr. Vrudny chaired a national search for the Director of the Office of Service-Learning. She and the search committee (Dr. Sue Cipolle, Dr. Len Jennings, Dr. Ann Johnson, Dr. Mike Klein, Ms. Maria Mantey, and Dr. Julie Plaut) worked to review 68 national applicants and invited four outstanding candidates for on-campus interviews. Although the result ended without a hire, the committee indicated that it was a valuable experience that will enhance our search as we move forward next year.
During this year, the Advisory Board also had the privilege of hearing presentations by guest speakers Dr. Harry Boyte, co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship from the University of Minnesota, who provided us with updated information on the state of service-learning in higher education, and Dr. Mike Cogan, Associate Vice-President for Institutional Effectiveness, who guided us through the results and analysis of the service-learning pre- and post- assessment data from previous years. Both presentations launched us into new ways of seeing and developing our work.
In addition, our community agencies brought us a continual flow of diverse ideas, goals and people with which and with whom to collaborate as we move forward together. Amparo Pope, administrative assistant to the OSL, has been a stabilizing force, re-organizing the Office and providing continuous support to all who are involved in this work.
In looking forward, we must approach best practices and trends in service-learning with courage and commitment. Identifying new courses, new pathways, new approaches is paramount as we seek to enhance our work and connect with campuses nationwide. We will continue to work with the Deans to look at the role of service-learning in annual review, promotion and tenure of faculty. We will work with faculty in curriculum building and developing new projects and initiatives. We will seek funders for service-learning research projects, and we will provide strategic directions for growth in the next five years.
As important as these goals are, the UST commitment to service-learning and community engagement is about the compassionate generosity that we develop as humans in the throes of seismic global transformations. Service-learning has the potential to connect Catholic Social Teachings that engage soul, spirit, and intellect with new ways of seeing ourselves and each other as we engage in and with the world. We are reminded of the two-way transformative influence in the work of service-learning, again poetically expressed by Rumi: “Why should I seek? I am the same as he. His essence speaks through me. I have been looking for myself!”
My sincere thanks to all who have supported the efforts and work in and with the Office of Service-Learning this year. I am deeply grateful to all who have worked hard and collaborated to achieve this level of growth. I look forward to our work together as the next academic year unfolds. I see the coming year as a time to envision our place as a University in the world of service-learning and community engagement, and the years thereafter as the time to secure that place through the creation of an open space for thought provoking dialogue and expansion of groundbreaking initiatives, even as we develop greater generosity of spirit for ourselves and for those we encounter on noisy and quiet streets in Minnesota and throughout the world.