by Kristine Sholty ’11

It’s 2011, and the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service-Learning celebrates 10 years of engaging students, faculty, and community members in partnerships that foster collaborative learning and civic participation. Happy Birthday, “Mary Jane!” 

And thank you for programs that promote academic learning, personal growth, and civic responsibility in “K” students. Not to mention that, in the community, those programs achieve measurable results in areas as diverse as public education, public health, nutrition, fitness, environmental awareness, and community organizing.   

Service-learning is different from community service, according to the Institute’s founding director, Alison Geist. Service-learning is the effort to move from charity to justice, from service to the elimination of need. Geist says: “Students work in programs they have helped to develop in partnership with community activists to more fully understand and address pressing social issues such as educational disparities, health promotion and disease prevention, community arts, hunger and food justice, sustainability, immigration rights, neighborhood revitalization, among others.”  

It’s important to remember “Mary Jane’s” scholarly bona fides. The Institute originated with faculty collaboration, stresses Geist, who worked with professors—in particular Bruce Mills, English; and Kiran Cunningham and Kim Cummings, anthropology and sociology—many of whom had created community-based programs on their own.  Nevertheless, those professors and others recognized that a cohesive service-learning effort would expand the College’s tradition of innovation in experiential learning and extend its commitment as an “institutional citizen” in the community that nurtures it.   

“Study abroad enabled students to cross geographical and cultural borders around the world,” says Geist. “But here at home, relatively few students had been crossing the street to learn from and contribute to the life of the City of Kalamazoo.”  

So in 1998, with a vision, a handful of courses and research projects, and two or three partnerships with community organizations, the Campus Community Partnership was established to engage students in the lives of their nearest neighbors. In 2001, Trustee Ronda Stryker and her husband, Bill Johnston, endowed these initiatives in the name of Ronda’s grandmother, Mary Jane Underwood Stryker. Today, some 20 courses across the disciplines feature service-learning components; more than 25 student leaders coordinate weekly service-learning programs outside of courses; and the Institute works in long-term collaborative partnerships with more than 35 organizations each year. About half of “K” students are involved in service-learning initiatives, contributing more than 25,000 hours to community development each academic year.  

To date, more than 5,000 alumni have participated in Institute programs.  

Stryker also created an endowment to honor the late Marilyn LaPlante, who long served the College as vice president for student development and the institution’s first dean of experiential education. The LaPlante Endowment provides funding for faculty innovation in service-learning and helps support the Institute’s Civic Engagement Scholarship Program.   

The LaPlante Endowment, along with the Vibbert and Vonk Endowments, and grants from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Michigan Campus Compact, the Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation and national foundations continue to support the Institute.  

And the Institute, in turn, supports the development of service-learning courses. Some examples:

• “Cultivating Community” – Associate Professor of English Amelia Katanski’s first-year seminar, in which students work on various projects that examine the nature of personal commitments, focusing on engagement with and advocacy for food justice, environmental sustainability, and the local food movement.
• “General Psychology” – Associate Professor of Psychology Karyn Boatwright’s class offered each quarter and providing students the opportunity to promote adult literacy and participate in several long-term partnerships with Kalamazoo Public School students.
• Associate Professor of Psychology Siu-Lan Tan’s “Developmental Psychology,” which inaugurated a Co-Authorship Project that has connected Woodward Elementary kids and “K” students in the creation of thousands of books, written and illustrated by the elementary students.
• “Prisons and Public Policy” – Assistant Professor of Sociology Laura Barraclough’s platform for study and action on the social and cultural repercussions of crime and incarceration in the U.S., including successful rehabilitation and the barriers that impede it.  

Civic Engagement Scholars, meanwhile, coordinate programs outside of courses that engage more than 350 “K” students each year. Lisa Phillips ’10, for example, was a Civic Engagement Scholar (CES) with “Keeping the Doors Open,” a math enrichment program. She paired high-aptitude middle school kids with 35 “K” students for twice-a-week, one-on-one campus tutoring sessions that take place in Olds-Upton classrooms.  CES Nathania Dallas ’09 started an after-school program at Woodward that focused on gardening, health education, and community awareness.  Programs vary, and so do their challenges.   

“Both new and long-standing programs can take a while to navigate at first,” says Dallas. “But whatever the situation, Institute staff members are excellent at prompting your own solutions while providing a backbone of support, encouraging you to move forward.”   

In his sophomore year Cooper Wilson ’11 helped lead the Maple Street middle school program known as AMIGOS with classmate and fellow CES Kathleen O’Donovan ’11. This year the senior will continue working with the bilingual tutoring program. “The key to our success was linking theory and practice, which is sometimes neglected in a strictly academic setting,” says Wilson. (Wilson is one of only six college and university students in Michigan to receive a 2010-11 Community Impact Award from Michigan Campus Compact.)  

The Institute assesses a potential community partnership by determining available resources, validating each project’s educational purposes, and fostering relationships between faculty, students, and the organizational partner. Word of successful partnerships spreads throughout the community, sending other potential partners to inquire about the “Mary Jane.”   

Beth Yankee, the principal of Woodward, praises the College’s service-learning efforts. “‘K’ students have provided support for our students, and that support has helped them achieve measurable educational gains,” she says. “I feel so fortunate to have crossed paths with so many talented, dedicated and intelligent ‘K’ students. They are really outstanding.”

Geist cites the Institute’s relationship with Farmworker Legal Services as an example of a collaboration that achieves multiple aims. Each year, about a dozen of  Maria Jose Romero-Eshuis’s students in her course
"The key to success is linking theory to practice."
“Culture of Health and Disease in the Hispanic Community” (Spanish 205) work with FLS on environmental justice, housing, and education projects to assist agricultural workers. Throughout the year, a CES organizes panel discussions, advocacy campaigns, and forums on the working and living conditions of migrant farm workers. And during the summer the Institute’s Community Building Interns perform research and work in the field to further FLS projects.

Tom Thornburg, managing attorney for FLS, says, “Experienced, bilingual, committed Kalamazoo College students assist FLS in our mission of improving the lives of migrant farm workers in Michigan.”   

Adds Geist: “That collaboration creates compelling opportunities for ‘K’ students to ‘cross borders,’ acquire intercultural understanding, and take action that addresses injustice—here in Kalamazoo.   

“People often think of ‘service-learning’ solely as ‘community service,’” she continues. “It’s much more. I consider it ‘transformational learning.’” The transition from taking individual actions that address symptoms to addressing the structural causes at the root of the symptoms requires an understanding, for example, of how social policies contribute to educational disparities. Hence the need for rigorous scholarship. “The experiences that come from community partnerships are fundamental to the overall ‘K’-Plan. And combining scholarship with a real relationship with the community is a great way to learn."  

An essential element of ‘transformational learning’ is structured reflection. Structured reflection is integral to service-learning courses and allows students to explore challenges and question beliefs. Civic Engagement Scholars lead structured reflection sessions in which students explore the meaning of their service-learning experience and its relevance to their academic work, identity, and plans for the future.      

It’s not surprising that “Mary Jane” has won many awards. Among them: the 2005 Carter Campus Community Partnership Award, the 2006 Governor’s Service Award for Innovative Mentoring Program (AMIGOS), and several local awards for various partnerships. More honors are likely, because the Institute strives for continual development of new, unique partnerships.    

Through service-learning experiences, students confront inequity and injustice, and develop critical understandings of their root causes.  Then they must decide how they will respond, how they will take “personal and social responsibility” as students and throughout their lives. It’s that kind of reflection—followed by action—that can transform a life and a community.   

“Mary Jane” changes the world for students, through students, and with the community.

Picture 1

The Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service-Learning makes service-learning part of academic classes. About 25 students joined Associate Professor of English Amelia Katanski this spring to contribute to four community gardens throughout the city. They each work about three hours a week with an array of Institute partners to address food security and health at Edison School, Douglass Community Center, the Growing Matters Garden, and the Ka’desh Community Garden.

Picture 2
Oxen “Hershel” and “Walker”—on loan from Tiller’s International—plow the Ka’desh Community Garden located on the City’s north side, part of a service-learning project of Kalamazoo College’s “Mary Jane.”

Picture 3
“K” students Jamie Schaub (left) and Hailey Schurr provide some encouragement to the oxen.

Picture 4
Good soil and straight lines

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