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23 October 2012

Intercultural Horizons Conference: Intercultural Strategies in Civic Engagement

As promised, I am finally posting about my experience at the Intercultural Strategies in Civic Engagement conference at the SUNY Global Center in New York City. I have posted the abstract and how excited I was to go, but now I would like to share what happened and what I’ve learned.

(On left: Dr. Thelen, me. On right: Dr. Cameron, Ms. Ritz)

At the beginning of October I had the privilege to attend and present at the Intercultural Strategies in Civic Engagement conference. A few months before the conference I spoke with Dr. Peggy Thelen of Alma College* about her plans to speak at this conference about the work she has done promoting service learning at Alma College (both on and off campus) with two of her colleagues. After chatting, I asked if I could go along and present with them. I was interested in presenting because I had participated in a service learning experience at Alma College while studying for my bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan. My role would be to present about service learning from the perspective of a student and its impact on my learning and career.

I was also looking forward to attending other sessions, as I have become interested in finding ways to incorporate volunteerism into the courses that I am teaching at the English Language Institute at Central Michigan University. I am also the Conversation Partners Program coordinator, so I am also looking for opportunities for international students and their conversation buddies to get involved in the community together. At this conference I hoped to learn more about how service learning can help students, and how I can implement effective service learning opportunities into my courses and  in the CMU ELI Conversation Partner Program. And just as importantly, this was my first international conference and presentation. Previously, I had only attended and presented at events in Michigan, so I was excited to meet people from around the country and discuss with them what they have implemented in their programs and universities.

(Below: Times Square)
We arrived on Wednesday evening so that we could get checked into our hotel ad check out the location before the conference started on Thursday. Our hotel was near Times Square; the lights were an awesome welcome to Manhattan. On Thursday morning we got up and went to the SUNY Global Center, which is deceptively large! From the outside it looks like a small venue, but the inside is expansive and modern. We presented in the afternoon, so we got to spend the morning attending other sessions, including the keynote address.

 (Below: Dr. Cameron, me, Ms. Ritz 
in front of the SUNY Global Center)
The keynote speaker, Kwame Anthony Appiah of Princeton University, spoke first. He discussed honor and the honor code. I attended a few sessions given by community college and university instructors who integrated service learning into their curricula both at home and abroad. One presenter took her students to Kenya and another had her students act as volunteers yielding immigration questions for members of the local community. Another speaker was a coordinator and English teacher for an international program in rural, mono-cultural Utah, a community that seems similar to Mt. Pleasant. He discussed the importance of integrating international students with the local community for mutual benefit. This resounded with me because the CMU Conversation Partner Program also strives to integrate our international students with the American students and surrounding community. I believe this helps students better understand not only the target language but also the target culture. All three presenters discussed the importance of reflection through journals, discussion, and blogs to promote, monitor, and evaluate learning.

Finally, after lunch we presented. A lot of people strolled into the session late, which I think this made me even more nervous than I had been! First, the Alma College Service Learning Coordinator, Anne Ritz, introduced the college’s commitment to service learning through curriculum, integrating courses with volunteer opportunities, as well as month-long courses devoted to service learning. Next, Dr. Elizabeth Cameron, a professor of business and law, presented how she integrates service learning with her business classes. Her focus is getting students actual experience and encouraging community engagement. Then Dr. Thelen discussed the different ways she has required her students of education to learn through service. She has also taken students abroad to Argentina, to teach elementary classes. Both Drs. Cameron and Thelen talked about the importance of reflection for student learning.

One interesting point that came up was how to evaluate learning. The consensus was that it can be challenging to evaluate learning based on service, especially because learning from service is often delayed. Dr. Cameron mentioned an instance where a student didn’t fully appreciate the value in what he had done until years later when finding a job. Both professors stressed the importance of using reflection, observation by a supervisor, and outcome of project as a basis of evaluation. Dr. Thelen said, with a laugh, “They still have to do the work!” This is a strong point because so often (in my experience) students don’t do the work, or they only do the bare minimum. To prove how effective service learning can be, Dr. Cameron provided an excellent example. She had two sections of the same class, and only one section took part in the service-learning component. The students in the service learning section had higher overall grades on the tests, quizzes, and papers because they had the actual experience of using the concepts from class.  Dr. Cameron also mentioned a student who found their career path because of a service learning opportunity. Although there are challenges, I learned from the ladies that I presented with that the benefits abound.

I was last to present. I discussed my experience as an undergraduate when I traveled to Quito, Ecuador to volunteer at an after school program. During the two months I was there, I learned how to speak Spanish, communicate with few words, and adapt to any situation. Because of this opportunity, I decided to become an English language teacher. My experience as a student in a service-learning course helped shape my career path. Without that, I don’t know if I would ever have known how much I would enjoy working with diverse populations. Furthermore, that experience has helped me stand out from other students. When I was applying to student teach at local high schools in Ann Arbor, I was chosen by a well-respected teacher in a prominent high school because of my service-learning experience. Finally, I discussed my experience with conversation partner programs, both at the University of Michigan and a Central Michigan University. I believe that all four of us had such unique experiences, which centered on service learning that we were able to provide a distinctive look at service learning in Mid-Michigan colleges and universities.

(Mid-town Manhattan from the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I am excited to get a chance to teach a course in which I can implement service learning.  I am planning to require volunteer hours and reflection in the next integrated skills (speaking and listening) course that I teach. After attending this conference, I now realize how valuable it is for students to get out of the classroom and apply what they are learning in it.

Be on the lookout for more posts pertaining to service learning and volunteering. If you’re affiliated with CMU, check out the CMU Volunteer Center; they do great things!

*Dr. Thelen is my mom, if you couldn't tell from the photo

(All photos taken by me)