Professors are always looking for ways to make classroom lessons more relevant to life beyond College Hill. Through Lafayette’s Community-Based Learning and Research (CBLR) initiative, students apply what they’ve learned while helping local and global communities solve real-world problems.
“It is one thing to read about millions of people in the country whose access to health care is constrained by lack of insurance. It is another to meet a woman living at the Third Street Alliance shelter with her child, who has breast cancer and no health insurance,” explains CBLR committee member Rob Root, professor and associate head of mathematics. “The immediacy and desperateness of this woman’s situation makes the figures more gripping and emotionally significant. It alters the conversation in the classroom in a way no academic experience can.”
Experiential learning differs from volunteer work in that it is tied directly to classroom instruction in a course or research.
“Through the CBLR initiative, a faculty instructor designs a community-based, experiential component in partnership with a community organization to deepen students’ understanding of the course content. Volunteer work also can provide an opportunity to learn something, but the learning depends entirely on the volunteer’s ability to glean meaning from his/her own experience,” says Hannah Stewart-Gambino, dean of the College.
With the wide variety of experiential learning opportunities available, CBLR is easily something that can be typical of a Lafayette education, rather than exceptional. Inevitably, real-world issues force students to make multidisciplinary connections.
“For example, working with poor communities in Honduras to develop sustainable systems to provide safe drinking water requires science, engineering, social science, and humanities. The sum of these three—active engagement, the ability to analyze issues in their real-world contexts, and the ability to make connections across disciplinary boundaries—are the marks of global citizens and leaders,” Stewart-Gambino says.
Mildred Gonzalez ’11 has taken the real-world learning she gained at Lafayette and is applying it now as she teaches English and serves the community in Madrid, Spain, through a Fulbright Scholarship.
Gonzalez, who graduated with an A.B. with majors in psychology and English, and Hannah Finegold ’11, who graduated with an A.B. in history, served as college writing associates last school year and gained unique insight into the challenges faced by second-language learners and adult students struggling with literacy.
Under the guidance of Bianca Falbo, associate professor of English, and Christian Tatu, coordinator of the College Writing Program, they led weekly writing workshops and one-on-one writing conferences at ProJeCt of Easton, which offers emergency and language and literacy services to the local community.
“As an individual who comes from a family of Hispanic descent, the issue of a language barrier is one I am very familiar with,” Gonzalez explains. “Nothing compares to the feeling I got when someone gained confidence through our meetings to become a better writer. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I had in my four years at Lafayette.”
Numerous other student/faculty collaborations have brought Lafayette expertise into the community, but community doesn’t just apply to Easton—courses and research projects with service-learning components have taken students throughout the country and the world.
Since 2003, Lafayette’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders has been working in El Convento and other communities in the poor Yoro region of Honduras to install clean water systems and provide other infrastructure improvements. Once those systems are in place, the communities need to be able to maintain them. And to do that, they need to find ways to bring in income. That’s where Lafayette’s Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project (EEGLP) has stepped in. EEGLP is helping El Convento establish cash crops, such as cocoa, to generate an income for the community.
EEGLP is providing the financial and technical capital necessary for the group in El Convento to prepare the terrain and purchase the initial cocoa plants. It also is helping the community negotiate an agreement with XOCO, a Nicaragua-based producer of high-quality cocoa beans.
According to Luke Calvano ’12 (Eastampton, N.J.), an economics and policy studies double major, the community of El Convento, not EEGLP, must be the driver of the project for it to succeed. It’s the philosophy of teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish.
“We don’t want to march into a community and start planting seeds. We want the group to own and nurture the projects. That way they can recognize their value and link it to their livelihoods,” says Calvano. “So much more can be achieved when the community members of El Convento completely buy in and dedicate themselves to these projects. That’s what makes them work, and that’s what makes them last. If they know how to operate the machine that is their business and community, they won’t need us anymore, and that’s the whole point.”
For high school students in Madagascar who have aspirations of attending college in the United States, the application process can be extremely daunting. They have to study for and take the SAT, write essays, prepare applications — the same steps that American high school students take, but in a language that for most is their third, after Malagasy and French.
Under the guidance of David Stifel, associate professor of economics, a group of Lafayette students has developed a peer mentoring program to help those Malagasy students overcome the language barrier and other disadvantages to pursue their dreams of receiving a college education at an American school. The Lafayette group spent three weeks with the students in Madagascar in January and continues to provide guidance to them by email.
Greg Allis ’12 (Danvers, Mass.), a civil engineering major, participated in the January visit as part of the Lafayette Initiative for Malagasy Education (LIME) and came away with a greater understanding of the barriers faced by the Malagasy teens.
“We taught the students a lot while we were there, but it still seems like we took the most away from our time there. We had an opportunity to make a tangible difference in a community devastated by political conflict and economic struggles. It was easy to see how much our work meant to them, and that the hope we instilled in them would not be lost after we left,” Allis says.