Learning through service

February 18, 2013

By Clarrissa McWoodson ’14

Dr. Amy Scott, assistant history professor and the Interim Director of Women’s Studies, organized a new project for her students in WMS 200 this semester.

Dr. Scott designed a service learning project to give WMS 200 students an opportunity to bridge the gap between the big questions posed by the course, their newfound knowledge of women’s studies scholarship and their desire to change the world.

WMS 200, a general education course and an introductory class for Women’s Studies minors, introduces students to debates, perspectives and scholarship within the field of Women’s Studies. In it, students tackle big questions, such as: What is feminism? What is gender? How do gender systems affect our lives, and society? How have women’s movements changed over time, and what kinds of changes have women’s movements produced in different societies?

“The best aspect of this project is that we were able to take our classroom knowledge and apply it to someone else's life. It’s much more eye-opening when you can take information and put a face on it, It gives you a new perspective,” said Emma Ruegge, a senior nursing major.

To complete the voluntary class project, students spent a minimum of 10 hours working with a community or campus organization. In the final weeks of class, students also wrote a journey paper about their experiences in the field.

Ruegge, for example, organized a Halloween party for children whose parents had sought services at Peoria’s Center for Prevention of Abuse.

Community organizations and local politicians who agreed to mentor students included the Center for Prevention of Abuse, the Center for Youth and Family Services, the Illinois Women Writers Project (IWA), State Rep. Jehan Gordon Booth and State Sen. Dave Koehler. Additionally, three students volunteered on campus, helping organize Bradley’s Tunnel of Oppression, an interactive event that educates students about oppression experienced by different groups and populations.

Katie Spoden, a senior sociology major, worked for the IWA, an educational non-profit designed create awareness about female artists living, working and creating in Illinois from 1840-1940. The IWA consists of an online database that stores biographical information about these women, in addition to information about their works of art.

“I think the best part of this project was being able to apply what I learned in the classroom to an organization whose mission I support. I liked being able to take what I learned in class and do something impactful with it,” said Spoden, adding she would like to eventually work for a non-profit that focuses on women's issues.

Channy Lyons, the creator and director of the Illinois Women Artists Project, was thrilled to have Spoden’s help. “Katie helped me understand how to use Facebook to benefit the Illinois Women Artists Project,” Lyons said. “She launched a new weekly feature on the webpage that has brought us attention. When I first asked her for ideas on how to improve the IWA Page she returned a list of splendid suggestions, which we are following through on.”

Sophomore Erica Kubic, a public relations major, volunteered with The Body Project, a campus organization increasing awareness and acceptance of the human body in all shapes and sizes. Kubic gave a brown bag lecture on media representations of female bodies and researched potential guest speakers on the topic.  She characterized her service learning work with The Body Project as “a great opportunity.”

“I didn't necessarily have to go out and serve those in need to have a life-changing experience,” she said. “Talking about the importance of image in our society and the value of our bodies was really refreshing.”

Dr. Scott said that one of the most rewarding components of the service learning project was seeing students become teachers when they brought their field experiences back to the classroom.

Dr. Scott said it was clear, after reading the final papers, that the students had gained some perspective on the work needed to improve gender equality. “Most importantly,” she said, “these students started to believe that they could use their knowledge to help people.”