April 29, 2009
Heidi Upton, D.M.A., an Assistant Professor in the
Institute of Core Studies at St. John’s University, interprets
teaching as a secondary art form. A classically trained pianist as
well as a teaching artist, she uses her training in the arts when
she teaches Discover New
York (DNY), a mandatory course that provides first-year
students with a remarkable experience. Whether incorporating
photojournalism, poetry or story-telling, the course weaves
together elements of academic service-learning, critical thinking,
creativity and student reflection.
After witnessing the enormous number of homeless persons in New
York City, Dr. Upton unveiled a new technique in her DNY
curriculum. With the assistance of Learning
Communities and the Office of Academic
Service-Learning (AS-L), a pedagogical concept that blends
classroom theory with a required service activity, the DNY/homeless
project—DNYhome—engages students in direct service to New York
City’s homeless community.
“In the past I attended meetings on AS-L but did not see how I
could incorporate it into my curriculum as it existed then but I
knew it was important for the DNY program,” Dr. Upton explains.
“Once I re-worked my course, I wanted service-learning to be
intimately woven with what we did in the classroom.”
Dr. Upton partners with several service entities that work with New
York City’s homeless population to facilitate this program.
Her DNY students dedicate nine hours over the course of the
semester working with some of the neediest members of
society. Students are required to capture the essence of
their experiences through creative responses such as photo essays,
poetry, creative writing projects, and research papers.
When asked the biggest challenge in creating this program, Dr.
Upton replies: “Finding the service sites that were appropriate for
the course. In this regard, I had the complete cooperation of the
AS-L staff. I am grateful that the AS-L structure exists. Because
of the work Melanie Serge-Roth and the other administrators, I know
I’m not alone but have an amazing support system from the
In DNYhome, students are encouraged to step outside their comfort
zone and become social justice pioneers. By doing so, they
become critical thinkers in addressing the deeply-rooted,
complicated issues of homelessness in America.
“I think the University wants to develop citizens of the world and
I want our students to understand they have an obligation to be
wide awake—to respond to that world in authentic ways,” Dr. Upton
explains. “AS-L asks that we live integrated lives. It feels good
when you activate your whole self—using both your creative and your
thinking mind, you suddenly feel alive and happy.”
A Life-Altering Experience
“The first time I participated in service-learning, I was surprised
to see the amount of homeless people lined up in single file to
receive a hot meal,” says Louis Romero, a freshman DNY student. “It
was truly heart-wrenching and it simply didn’t make sense to me.
After my last service opportunity, I made a promise to myself that
I would continue with my volunteer service and not just limit it to
part of a school requirement.”
Freshman Zina Barrow reports that she noticed “the people standing
in line were not the stereotypical poor person--the adults looked
like they could be your next door neighbor and the children looked
like classmates sitting alongside your little brother or sister at
daycare. Prior to the homeless initiative developed by Dr. Upton, I
would only notice people asking for food or money but now I notice
everyone-- the vocal and the silent; those walking and those
sleeping on park benches—this service experience has forever
changed my life.”
Academic Service-Learning enhances the educational experience of
St. John’s students and is a major component of the University’s
2009-2013 Strategic Plan. It’s also a part of the Vincentian
Institute for Social Action (VISA), which was launched by the
University to more visibly embed St. John’s Catholic and Vincentian
mission into the educational experience of its students. VISA
provides an organizational focus for a variety of new and ongoing
programs through which faculty and students can work together to
explore the causes of and develop solutions for poverty and social
injustice throughout the world.