Service learning at The University of Iowa is thriving—even outside the country, thanks to faculty members like Susan Murty. For the past two summers, the associate professor of social work in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has traveled with students to Pátzcuaro, Mexico, to work with children and the elderly over a two-week period.
Murty recently discussed with Parent Times the value of service learning in UI curricula.
What sorts of activities have your students done in Mexico?
They do service learning at one of three sites: an orphanage or group home for boys, a boarding home for elders, or a village providing activities for children. One of the things I like about this project is that I don’t tell them exactly what to do. We have two pretrip seminars, and then the students devise the activities themselves. I think that’s a good thing—they develop confidence in their own abilities to plan and carry out a project.
The students working with children have made crafts, played games such as musical chairs and the “Hokey Pokey,” taught them some English, and had them playing basketball. Those working with older people spend a lot of time talking to them—not all students speak great Spanish, but they all end up with better Spanish by the time they come back—and learning a variety of ways to communicate without using words, like doing puzzles, playing games, and dancing.
The service-learning component takes up about three hours each weekday. We also meet people involved in social services and hear from a variety of guest speakers. The students are immersed in the Mexican culture and language and have a chance to visit the area and learn about the history.
How quickly do students adapt?
In the beginning, they generally feel like they can’t do it. We have nightly reflection meetings, and 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 but I let them solve the problems they encounter. 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.
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 contribution to the community they make is great, but their own learning for their future endeavors is even more valuable. Students the last two years have said the trip changed their lives—many of them are planning to do more international travel as a result of this experience. They also have said that the trip helped them understand immigration from the point of view of the family members left behind in Mexico.
I strongly believe in experiential learning. Classroom learning means more if students get a chance to use what they learn outside the classroom. The University’s Center for Teaching has done a great job of encouraging faculty to develop service-learning courses.
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 provide 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 The University of Iowa in 1994.
by Christopher Clair