The Irwin W. Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning doesn’t take its mission lightly.
“Our goal is to provide creative, academically rigorous, and impactful service-learning opportunities,” says Howard Rosing, executive director. “And we intend to keep doing that better than anyone else! In fact, U.S. News & World Report consistently names DePaul’s service-learning program among the nation’s best.”
The Steans Center is central to DePaul’s strategy of extending education beyond the classroom, as Rosing explains: “Service learning enables students to think about the community as a place where knowledge resides — a place where they can gain a better understanding of the world — a place where they can get involved in critical social, economic, and political issues. Service learning integrates theory and practice, and that’s one of DePaul’s strongest values.”
Euan Hague (associate professor, Geography) agrees: “Without the Steans Center, the curriculum at DePaul would not be as rich as it is, nor would it be as strong in communicating our Vincentian values. The Center connects teachers and community organizations, and that connection is essential to DePaul’s identity as a university.”
As a model of service learning delivery, the Center stands out for three reasons: its structure; its support of the Community Service Studies program; and the depth, breadth, and duration of its community partnerships.
On DePaul’s organization chart, the Steans Center resides within Academic Affairs: for this reason, it reaches across all colleges.
“Many times a resource like the Center is situated in student affairs, which doesn’t always align well with the educational objectives of the faculty,” says Rosing. “In contrast, the Steans Center is embedded in DePaul’s academic fabric. This structure allows faculty to view the Center in the context of the curriculum; as a result, we’re engaged with curriculum development.”
Christine Tardy (associate professor, Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse) makes the case for this engagement when she recalls working with the Center to create her service learning class, “Teaching and Tutoring ESL in Chicago.”
“During the orientation for new teachers in 2004, I heard about experiential learning and thought, ‘Wow! that would be a great for ESL.’ One year later, I proposed a course in which students would work with adult immigrants, whether as one-on-one tutors or classroom teachers. I had never taught a course like this before, and without the Steans Center, I would not have known where to start.
“Through the Center, I was able to find community partners that fit with the objectives of the class. Just as important, I learned about the pedagogy behind experiential learning — about how to structure a course so that theory and practice are intertwined. For my students, this class is a unique opportunity to work with people who are living what we’re studying — people who are not just learning a second language, but dealing with the complexities of language policy, immigration, and citizenship.
“Experiential learning makes DePaul’s commitment to community outreach real for students, and I’ve had trouble finding equivalent examples of other universities doing this in my field."
Community Service Studies Program
According to Jacqueline Lazú (associate professor, Modern Languages), the Community Services Studies program symbolizes DePaul’s commitment to community engagement and community development. As the program’s faculty director, she is often invited to speak about DePaul’s approach: “A lot of universities are trying to do this, and we’re already very good at it.”
The program offers a minor in community service studies, including three required courses — 1) Perspectives on Community Service, 2) Introduction to Non-Profit Management, and 3) Community Internship — and three elective courses that can come from anywhere in the university curriculum. (To qualify as an elective, a course must be proposed by faculty and then approved by an advisory board made up of faculty, staff, and community members).
“No matter what a student’s major, a minor in community service studies can be a real asset,” says Lazú. “Our students have an edge — an additional capacity, like a second language; they know how to engage different types of communities and integrate those communities into their professional work.”
“Our community relationships are reciprocal; neither side just gives or just takes,” say Rosing. “Universities have a long history of going into neighborhoods and taking data out. That model doesn’t work well at DePaul because at the core of our service-learning model is the ethical responsibility of reciprocity. If our engagement doesn’t benefit the community, it’s not good enough.”
DePaul community partners affirm this promise to deliver real value.
“I take as many as DePaul students as I can get,” says Sr. Dorothy Gartland, Providence Family Services, Humboldt Park. “Without them, we would not be able to run our after-school program.” For more than 15 years, DePaul students have helped young youngsters with their homework so they can graduate from eighth grade, enter high school with confidence, and ultimately go on to college. “The DePaul students are wonderful: they work without complaint, and the kids love them. They’re making a difference in these young lives.”
Kelli Becker, community coordinator, Arts of Life, uses DePaul students for all types of activities, from mentoring artists to planning events, from photographing and framing art work to scraping paint off the floors. “The students are always willing to do anything we ask. Many end up staying on after their required 20 hours to become regular volunteers — we’re really happy when that happens!”
For the Safer Foundation for Youth Empowerment, an organization that works to reduce recidivism, DePaul students mentor 16 to 21 year-olds looking for work after leaving prison. “The partnership is really beneficial to us,” says Enid Johnson, manager of volunteer services.
“The students help our clients with practical tasks, such as online job applications, career mapping, mock interviews, and resume writing. More important, they’re effective in making connections and showing an alternative path. Our clients see them as people their own age — people who care and who are committed to helping them get their lives back on track. At the same time, the DePaul students gain perspective on why others fall through the cracks, how that affects them and their families, and why they deserve another chance."
“When it comes to service learning and the Steans Center, everyone’s a winner,” says Hague. “The faculty, the students, and the community.”