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Through Academic Service-Learning, St. John’s Transforms Students’ Lives

Friday, April 22, 2016
Amber Edwards

Amber Edwards ’15C, ’17G was still an undergraduate at St. John’s when she seized an opportunity that changed her life. A speech-language pathology major with a love for children, Edwards was taking one of many University classes that offer Academic Service-Learning (AS-L)—course-related service that helps make the Vincentian and Catholic Mission part of a St. John’s education.

Edwards chose a short-term AS-L summer project in Central America. Volunteering at an orphanage in Guatemala City, she spent her days feeding young patients and helping them to overcome difficulties with swallowing. The journey filled her with the satisfaction of helping those in need—and it led to a decision.

“Now,” said Edwards, who is pursuing her master’s degree, “I intend to take many service trips, both as a student and a professional—even after I obtain my license. St. John’s showed me how serving others can be a valuable part of my life and career.”

A growing number of students make the same discovery every semester. Introduced in 1995, AS-L reflects an ongoing, overall emphasis on engaging students in living the Vincentian Mission. Other offices—such as University Ministry, University Mission, and Student Affairs—also offer extensive volunteer opportunities including service plunges across the country and around the world. Locally, students help the city’s homeless population through the Midnight Run program and volunteer at local shelters, soup kitchens, and nursing homes. Service also is embedded in St. John’s study abroad courses.

Embracing the Legacy

AS-L is part of a pervasive culture of service at St. John’s. A little over a decade ago, 2,157 students and 91 professors took part in AS-L activities. By 2015, participation rose to 5,000 students and 200 faculty. And there is more variety and depth to those activities. Today, students and faculty can choose from more than 90 service sites in New York City, on Long Island, and at the University’s academic locations in Europe. Along with distributing food and clothes, AS-L students mentor children, tutor young mothers, encourage the families of critically ill children, and provide companionship to the elderly.

“Multifaceted—that’s how I would describe service-learning,” said Lynn Stravino ’05CPS, ’08G, Director of AS-L. “It’s classroom-, experiential-, and site-based.” Students, she explained, gain a better understanding of course concepts through service. At the same time, they gain insights into social ustice, civic responsibility, and Vincentian compassion for those in need. “When students leave St. John’s, they take valuable lessons of serving with them.”

“Integrating service has had a significant impact on the classes I teach,” said Christine M. Angel, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science. “I’m grateful that my work provides me with a platform to combine experiential learning within my online and blended courses.” Angel recently received an external grant supporting an AS-L project she developed in partnership with the Center for Migration Studies of New York.

Learning from Those They Serve

Kamran Daravi

According to Kamran Daravi ’14C, ’16GP, AS-L is one of the most exciting aspects of a St. John’s education. Daravi, who is pursuing a master’s in public health, performed service at the Briarwood Residence—a community homeless transition center in Queens, NY. While there, he taught a cardiovascular health workshop to children ages 10–17.

“I learned from the children’s perspective how their views on everyday life and health are strongly affected by their environment,” he said. “If it weren’t for my service experience at St. John’s, it would have taken years to gain the same understanding—an understanding I can use to help others in my career.”

“St. John’s University is committed to providing a meaningful, value-based education to all students” said Deanne Southwell, Ed.D., Executive Director of the Vincentian Institute for Social Action (VISA). “Academic Service-Learning is an integral part of this mission. Through service, students experience the legacy of St. Vincent de Paul, and gain a greater understanding of the society and the concerns which hinder human rights and human dignity.”