Passion for Place in India


From the Inside: Thoughts on Place-Based Education at a Community College

This February I took part in a three-week international service trip to southern India. During my time in the Tamil Nadu region of India, I was based at a British women’s school, Lady Doak College (LDC). I worked closely with the students there building deep relationships that allowed me to learn about their community so that I could effectively serve alongside them. While our service together in orphanages and schools was personally transformative, I expected that. What was unexpected was the way LDC’s place-based education programs energized me to go back to my school and raise the bar in my own domestic service work. That was truly unexpected! Honestly, I had expected them to be in need of direction, instead of them directing me.

Schools of higher education in India are three-year institutions. The first year allows students to get settled in, test the waters in their major, and take required general education courses — similar to our freshman year in the United States. LDC uses this grounding year to challenge students with open discussions of the current caste, gender, and social issues that impact their culture. They encourage students to open their eyes to the big issues of their world and empower them to make a difference. I should note that the students at LDC, for the most part, come from families who can pay for them to attend college and so, can be somewhat sheltered from these cultural issues.

All second year students participate in a required immersion week. Classes are assigned villages on the outskirts of their city and learn about their selected community in preparation for their experience. Then, for one week, they live within the village experiencing the “lifestyle” of the locals including sleeping in tents or basic lean-tos; having no access to running water, restroom facilities, or technology; and having only rudimentary supplies for cooking. By living alongside the villagers, they gain a deep understanding of the village’s needs and build genuine relationships within this community. They work with the villagers to meet these needs together. Second years who had completed this experience were anxious to tell me how eye-opening it was. Many hope to continue their work in their village through their capstone project.

During their third year, students serve their communities through Lady Doak’s LiFE: Life Frontier Engagement program. This year, over 1,000 students were involved in 191 community-based action research projects as a part of this program. LiFE capstone classes allow students in every department to select a community that they will work with, spend one term surveying the community and researching an identified problem, and then spend a 2nd term working to solve the problem through direct service in that community.

I attended a presentation during my time at LDC where students from many of these disciplines shared their LiFE projects. Their excitement about this work was palpable. They were SO proud of the work they did to make a difference in these communities through their major courses. You could clearly see the impact this place-based work had on them and their chosen communities. I wanted, and still want, to find a way to connect these students with my students in the US to ignite a passion in them for this work.

Here are few examples of the types of projects that have been part of LDC’s LiFE work: the Commerce department’s development of marketing strategies for vegetable, fruit, and flower vendors; the History department’s promotion of responsible tourism; the English department’s work teaching soft skills to children; the Tamil (Native Language) department’s work to address alcohol addiction in their culture; the Computer Application department’s work imparting digital literacy to under-privileged women; the Physics department’s study of noise pollution and possible control mechanisms; and the Botany department’s creation of a plant database with nutritional and medicinal values in a local village. And there are many more.

Now that I’m back home, how can I take these two examples of deep, place-based work and integrate them into my work at a Community College? My college has alternative Spring Break service trips that are a form of the second year immersion week at LDC; however, they do not engage students in our own local communities that have great needs. We also have an Ed Abroad program that includes several credit classes that will embed a service element into their international experience. Neither have students living in the same conditions as those in the community, and neither is meeting a need close to home. I suspect there are a multitude of legalities and logistics involved in having our students live in a local homeless shelter, low-income, urban community, or itinerant farm workers’ camp. If you have any experience with this type of place-based experience, I’d love to hear how you’ve worked out these logistics… and what exciting things you are doing! This is one direction that I’d like to move in, but it will definitely take time.

The community-based action research model seems a little easier to integrate into the community college setting. While having two terms to work with the same class of students on a project is not easy to come by at my school, there are ways it could be possible: in a course sequence within a discipline (i.e. — Bio 101, 102, 103) or within our honors program. Perhaps spreading the work over several classes in subsequent terms with the same instructor would allow more classes to incorporate this model. I can envision incorporating the surveying, researching, and acting phases into the three main consecutive terms that make up our academic year. Perhaps if the project incorporated three courses in a discipline (in my case, Beginning Excel, Beginning Access, and then our capstone Integrated Computer Systems classes), students who became engaged in the project could enroll in all three and be a part of the project from beginning to end. That’s something I can get excited about pursuing! Do you currently do place-based service research projects at your school? If so, I’d love to hear about this, too.

LDC is a world away from my everyday life on a community college campus in the United States, but they have motivated me to up my game and add some innovative options to my service work here. I hope the passion and community awareness LDC is instilling in their Indian students will stay in my own thoughts and goals as an educator for a long time to come.

Diane Shingledecker is the District Service-Learning Faculty Coordinator specializing in Career Technical Education, as well as, a Computer Applications Instructor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. She is an enthusiastic alumni of Community Works Institute’s (CWI) Summer Institute on Service-Learning. She has been incorporating service-learning into her classes for the past 13 years and helping other faculty do this for the past 3 years. She is a participant in Portland State University’s Graduate Certificate Program in Service-Learning.

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