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Students Make a Difference as Academic Service-Learning Expands

St. John's Students on a Service-Learning Trip
Dr. Thomas with his philosophy students and individuals from the Soweto Kliptown Youth Foundation (SKY) in South Africa.
Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Eager to see South Africa and help those in need, Carissa Herb, a junior at St. John’s University, achieved both those goals by enrolling in a popular philosophy course this past spring.

The course, entitled Ethics, was one of many at St. John’s that feature Academic Service-Learning (AS-L). Students partnered with another philosophy class to raise more than $7,000 for the Soweto Kliptown Youth Center (SKY). Carissa and her classmates also spent 10 days in South Africa, where they assisted SKY’s patrons and staff by painting, gardening, and playing a friendly game of soccer.  “I would do it again in a heartbeat,” said Carissa.

S. Joshua Thomas, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, began including AS-L in his courses after learning about SKY during a summer visit to South Africa in 2015. Since then, his students have held a book drive for the center, collected money to repair its library roof, and engaged in last spring’s fundraising and service activities.

Dr. Ryder with the Inside-Out
students getting ready for their
weekly trip to Rikers.

Thousands of St. John’s students participate in AS-L every year. In 2016–17, more than 6,400 students engaged in course-related Vincentian service projects—up eight percent from the previous year. More than 200 faculty have included service in their courses. “When professors incorporate Academic Service-Learning into their curriculum, they see how much the experience enhances student learning,” said Lynn Stravino, Director of AS-L, part of St. John’s Vincentian Institute for Social Action. “It brings course work to life while furthering our Vincentian Mission.”

Established in 1995, the AS-L office works with local, nonprofit agencies and organizations to provide service-learning opportunities for students. The office  also supports faculty in planning projects to more closely match their course curriculums.

Other St. John’s professors found novel ways to offer AS-L last spring. Nikhil Yadav, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Computer Science, had his Mobile Health Technology class create an app to track a runner’s progress in miles, calories burned, and other fitness goals. The app is for participants in fundraising runs sponsored by Ronald McDonald House, which lodges families of children hospitalized for cancer. “Knowing the app might help raise funds for children with cancer drove the students to do their best,” said Dr. Yadav.

Juan Guerrero, a Computer Science major from Malverne, NY, agreed. “We all learned a lot in class,” said Juan, who will graduate in 2019. “But it was really good to know we were able to use our computer skills to support a worthy cause.

Judith Ryder, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, introduced the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at St. John’s, bringing ‘outside’ students together with ‘inside’ students as part of a course that was held behind the walls at Rikers Island Jail. St. John’s students gained a deeper understanding of crime, justice, and social inequality. 

“I discovered that the ‘inside’ students are no different from any other college student,” said Jessica Lawrence, who is majoring in Sociology and Anthropology at St. John’s. “After taking this course, I now feel I have a responsibility to effect change on the outside.”

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