School for New Learning boosts experiential service learning for adult students

Rachel Marciano
March 30, 2016

In Elisabeth Lindsay-Ryan's classroom, students learn how to serve as advocates for underserved groups. And then they leave the classroom and learn by doing. She is an example of how faculty and staff in the School for New Learning bring to life on of the most prominent aspects of the university: experiential service learning. 

From grassroots efforts promoting health to finding ways to address oil spills in Nigeria, the School for New Learning has pioneered programs specifically designed for adult students since the 1970s. The school is at the national forefront for implementing service learning programs for adult students and developing strategies for civic engagement. 

"School for New Learning students have more personal experience with the topics that add depth to classroom discussions," says Lindsay-Ryan, an adjunct faculty member in the School for New Learning. "We often work with the Steans Center to find diverse volunteer sites, such as homeless shelters or organizations that support individuals with reentry after prison. Students can apply their experiences and class work to organizations or programs they feel the most connected to."

Associate Professor Susan Reed notes School for New Learning students often opt for courses with a service learning component because of their strong connection to the community, as well as their substantial amount of experience that influences their studies. 

"Adult learners are often citizens of the neighborhoods we work in," Reed says. "Sometimes these students are already accomplished with the tools we're using in class, which makes the conversation richer, but it's that connection to the community that makes their drive to give back even greater."

Reed's classes focus largely on civic engagement and creating a healthier Chicago. In her course "Promoting Healthy Communities," students collaborated with the grassroots organization ENLACE to address inequalities in healthcare access in Little Village in Chicago's West Side. The nonprofit asked the School for New Learning to conduct research on community providers and create a resource guide the neighborhood's English and Spanish speaking residents could use to find healthcare facilities.

"There is of course a great deal of importance in classroom learning," Reed says. "But through service learning, you actually meet those living, for example, with inequality because of income or first language. It brings an entirely new level of engagement to the learning experience."

Beyond healthcare inequalities, School for New Learning students may work with Assistant Professor Akilah Martin on environmental issues. In her course "Urban Dirt," students conduct field work to measure fertility levels of the soil in community gardens across Chicago. Her students also collaborate with Friends of the Forest Preserves to help maintain the city's forests.

Some School for New Learning students focus on issues outside the United States. In one of Martin's independent study courses, students built a plan to address oil spills in Nigeria and Ethiopia.

"These students are looking at a problem from multiple angles; 'What needs to be done from the public health perspective, but also from an economic and environmental perspective?'" Martin says. "Service learning is a great asset because not only do our students gain hands-on experience in their field, it also allows people to think and act beyond personal benefit. They're able to understand what can actually be done with the information they gain in school."