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Susan Murty, School of Social Work, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

  Susan Murty photo
Susan Murty, associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences School of Social Work. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

After discovering service-learning opportunities for University of Iowa students in distant locations such as Mexico and El Salvador, UI faculty member Susan Murty is turning her attention closer to home.

Murty, associate professor of social work in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, will be leading a service learning seminar in the fall for students interested in flood recovery efforts in Iowa City, Coralville, and other stricken areas of eastern Iowa.

Service learning, which is best described as responding to real community needs while deepening students’ understanding of academic material, is a hot topic at universities around the country, and The University of Iowa certainly is no exception. Murty praised the efforts of Jean Florman and her colleagues in the UI Center for Teaching, which offers information for faculty who want to incorporate a service-learning component into their curricula.

Murty is no stranger to leading this sort of operation. Last year, she took 10 students to Pátzcuaro, Mexico, to work with children and the elderly. This year’s return trip to Mexico, which begins in mere days, will take 14 students to work on three service-learning projects—two involving children, one involving the elderly. “A lot of students wanted to go,” Murty says. “We actually had to go through a selection process this time.”

fyi caught up with Murty in between last-minute preparations for this year’s trip to Mexico to discuss the value of service learning in UI curricula, her upcoming seminars, and how she knew at a young age that social work was her calling.

The course Service Learning and Social Welfare will provide students service-learning opportunities right here at home through flood recovery efforts. How did this come together?

I saw a real opportunity for a service-learning course. In the past, we've taken students to Mexico, El Salvador, Philadelphia—they can do it right here! The seminar will involve service-learning components: service to community, readings on disasters and floods and how disasters affect people, journaling about their experience, and group reflection. I will ask the students to find their own volunteer job in flood relief.

This hasn’t been promoted broadly because I want to make sure there will be plenty for students to do. My guess is that if we define it broadly enough, there will be enough to do. Recovery takes a long time. We have some students who commute from Cedar Rapids, so perhaps they could find work up there.

Let’s talk about your upcoming trip to Pátzcuaro. What sorts of things will the students be doing in Mexico as part of their service-learning component?


A few of my favorite things ...

Food: pasta

Drink: wine

Book: I like the works of Paul Farmer, an anthropologist and physician who cofounded an international health and social justice organization

Music: folk

Movie: Spanish-language movies, films at the Bijou

Television: programs on Animal Planet


We leave Aug. 3 and come home Aug. 14. It’s a pretty short trip, but it’s full of opportunities. They are immersed in the Mexican culture and language; service learning takes up about three hours each weekday. We also meet people who are involved in social services, and we’ll hear from guest speakers. We’ll have a chance to visit the area, learn the history.

One of the things I like about this project: I don’t tell them what to do. They have to figure out the activities they will do with the children or the elders! We have two pretrip seminars, and the students plan what they’re going to do. I think that’s a good thing.

Last year, the students working with children made crafts, played games such as musical chairs, taught them some English, and had them playing basketball. On the last day, the children each received awards conceived by our students.

Those working with older people spent a lot of time talking to them—that is hard for some students, as not everyone speaks great Spanish, but they all end up with good Spanish by the time they come back. The students created a book with pictures of the elders they met with, along with stories of their lives.

How quickly do students adapt?

In the beginning, they generally feel like they can’t do it. We have nightly reflection meetings; at the first one, I hear a lot of “I can’t do this” or “I can’t understand what they’re saying” or “This is impossible!” I don’t disagree that it’s difficult! And the next day the students go back and find a way to make it work—if not in words, then perhaps through music, dance, and gestures.

The students solve problems and gain confidence when they see they can cope. It reinforces a lot of what we teach in the classroom. I strongly believe in experiential learning. The classroom learning doesn’t mean as much if they’re not out there using it.

Who reaps the greater reward from these trips: your students or you?

I think they get the most out of it. I love doing it, and I’m glad I’m the one to introduce them to these opportunities, but for the students it is a fantastic experience. They get turned on, they see this type of work is worthwhile. I think the amount they do for the community is great, but the learning for their future endeavors is even more valuable. Students last year said the trip changed their lives—most of them are planning to do more international travel as a result of this experience. Many of them said that the trip helped them understand immigration from the point of view of the family members left behind in Mexico.

What did you do before teaching at The University of Iowa?

I worked as a social worker in eastern Washington state, where I learned a lot about rural communities and how to do social services in that environment. I started teaching part-time at Eastern Washington University. I enjoyed teaching, and I was advised to get my PhD so I could continue. I went to Washington University in St. Louis to get my PhD, and came to Iowa in 1994.

When did you realize you wanted to be a social worker?

Right off the bat. I got to be friends with a girl next door—I was in junior high, she was 10—and she asked if I could teach her and her friends to do the Maypole dance. So I organized this whole thing in the neighborhood, dyed the streamers, put a pole up in the backyard, my father played the accordion…I think I was well on my way to becoming a community social worker.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken, and did it pay off?

I took a nine-month sabbatical to Mexico in 2004–05. It was risky—I’d made some plans, but wasn’t sure how it would turn out. I’d been learning Spanish, but didn’t speak all that much. I didn’t know exactly where I was going to stay. Yet it turned out great; I learned so much. I had to connect with people, so I invited people to my house for a party—that helped things along! Then I made connections through volunteering. The risk definitely paid off—and now I’m leading these seminars so others can reap the rewards.

by Christopher Clair


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