Students "speed date" to share community engagement experiences

By: Mark Tarnacki

speed dating in anthropology classLined up for "speed-dating" in a sun-soaked, foliage-framed Saint Michael's College outdoor courtyard early in October, students in Patti Delaney's Anthropology 109 class were obliged to break the news to one another: They're already engaged.

Happily, that's what their fellow students were hoping and expecting to hear. The engagement these students were talking about concerned recent community service assignments they've taken on as part of their learning, integrating real-world interactions with classroom work to impart deeper meaning and practical skills. This so-called "community-engaged learning" is becoming a hallmark of education at Saint Mike's.

Anthropology Professor Patti Delaney said she opted to use the "speed-dating" formula - moving down the line and talking for a minute or two with each successive person about your own personal highlights, or asking them about theirs - to help students process what they've been doing at any of three Greater Burlington sites since fall semester's start.

"One group is working with the local Boys and Girls Club with their teen program after school; another is working with the Boys and Girls Club at the integrated Arts Academy in Burlington, so they're doing homework help with students in K through Grade 3," the professor explained. "Then these are at Vermont Adult Learning, working with refugees and immigrants in an advanced English class."

Right after the "speed-dating," they self-sorted into subgroups from their same site assignments in order to figure the best way to communicate their experience to groups from other sites. Delaney picked up the activity from a summer workshop presented by Joan Wagner, director of the college's Center for Community-Engaged Learning, and decided this October 1 was a great time to try it out - outdoors - on such a glorious Vermont autumn morning.

Students clearly felt engaged in the class activity itself, their discussions drawing out fresh insights with bursts of animated laughter and lots of smiles. "They go to their community sites for 10 weeks, so all semester long, working two hours each week, and that's essentially the lab component of this class," says Delaney.

"We have a series of exercises and activities in class that let them bring experience and connect it to what we’re reading in class. Since I can't take off and bring them to East Timor where I do my work, this is the next best thing," she says. "It's a great hook - The class has a lot of first-year "Exploratory" majors who don't know what they want to do yet, and I find the field experience often is what grabs their attention for service or commitment to social justice, or for the major."

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