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Students take service learning seriously

Robin Schreck tutors a child at the Navajo Nation in Arizona.
Robin Schreck tutors a child in a Navajo Nation elementary school in Tuba City, Ariz., during a Penn State Beaver service learning trip in March 2012.
5/22/2013 —

 By Jennifer Durbin ’13 Com

The Navajo Nation, located in Tuba City, Ariz., four hours north of Phoenix, can get very cold at night. Accommodations on the reservation don’t include running water or on-site bathroom facilities; the closest is a block away. Warm water for a morning shower isn’t guaranteed. 

Not many people could spend a night in the accommodations provided by the Navajo Nation, let alone a week. But that’s exactly what eight Penn State Beaver students and three faculty and staff members did during spring break 2012. 

Robin Schreck, Beaver’s student activities and residence life coordinator, was instrumental in organizing the project.

Consisting of 27,000 square miles in the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, the Navajo Nation is geographically the largest Native American reservation in the country.

“Overall it was a very good experience,” said Dr. Irene Wolf, senior instructor in philosophy. “What I didn’t really care for was the living experience.”

Wolf said it was very difficult and challenging, especially for a person in her 50s. Dr. JoAnn Chirico, senior instructor in sociology, also made the trip and agreed there was certainly more roughing it then she and Wolf would have liked to do at their age, but conceded “it was a step above Girl Scout camping.”

“It was a wonderful trip,” Chirico said. “I think the students learned a lot about disadvantage, also a lot about the Navajo themselves.” 

Wolf concurred. “I really enjoyed the service. That was fantastic.”

One student did IT work, while several students and Wolf tutored Native American students in the elementary school on the reservation. Others worked on renovating an elderly woman’s hogan, a traditional Navajo home that’s a round, one-room building with a stove in the middle.

Chirico and a student worked at a senior center on the reservation, delivering Meals on Wheels and helping the senior residents with their sewing.

In order to take the trip, students had to be enrolled in Chirico’s Civic and Community Engagement course or working on an independent study; either way, the trip’s purpose was academic. 

Chirico said it was the first service trip from the campus that she’s aware of, but she’d like to see more. “Of course I couldn’t go every time,” Chirico said. “But I think it would be a nice opportunity for faculty and a great opportunity for students.”

Service learning was not only a major component of the Navajo Nation trip, but it plays a major role in both professors’ classes. Students are now able to earn a minor in civic and community engagement. 

Freshman John Fletcher, a student in the Division of Undergraduate Studies, liked Wolf’s philosophy class specifically because there was a civic engagement aspect to it. “It wasn’t important getting your hours completed. It was learning the lessons while you’re getting your hours completed,” he said.

Wolf said that, in addition to the service aspect of her philosophy class, the process of reflecting and stepping back to assess the experience is crucial. “Just simply fulfilling the hours isn’t enough,” she said.

Fletcher agreed. “The things I had to write in my paper made me reflect on what I did,” he said.

Wolf said the reflection makes the students realize why they’re here, why it’s important to be giving back, and what’s really important in life. “They get joy from this, they begin to realize they’re making a difference,” she said. “I think giving back is one of the most important things in life,” she said. 

“People ought to be altruistic and giving back without expecting anything in return,” Wolf said. “And if I can teach that in my classes, it will be the greatest thing I can teach.” 

Chirico said that service learning is important for her sociology classes, “hopefully to see first-hand the theories we talk about in class in action and to see how they operate in the world,” she said. “That’s our laboratory.”

That interaction is critical for her students, Chirico said, and it helps them improve social and communication skills. “All of these things will get improved, especially for those looking to work in the helping fields,” she said.

She believes service learning is the opportunity to give back to the community using the skills a student has, which are hopefully related to his or her major, while learning from those they’re serving at the same time.

“No matter what they do, they have the opportunity to learn, to use that experience as a laboratory, at the same time they’re giving back to the community,” Chirico said. 

Even though some students may complain about service learning, there are plenty who have embraced it and continue to contribute to their communities.

Chirico recalls a freshman female student who chose to work with hospice patients as her required service, then stayed with the program for five more years until she graduated. Another student worked with Meals on Wheels and got up at 7 a.m. one day a week to cook meals and package them alongside older, retired women. “They became like her family,” Chirico said. “She is still doing it.”

Wolf remembers how one of her male students who worked at a soup kitchen visibly changed throughout the course of the semester. The change was so noticeable that the student’s mother contacted Wolf and said that, as a family, they were all going to spend that Thanksgiving at the soup kitchen. She also told Wolf that they would spend other holidays there because they received such joy from it and saw what a difference it made to their son. She told Wolf that she used to think that just giving money was enough.

“Generosity is not about just giving the money. There’s something about giving of your time and your soul and connecting to others that’s much more valuable than the giving of the money,” Wolf said.

This spring the students were invited to meet with the Beaver campus Advisory Board to give a presentation about their trip to Arizona, their experiences and reactions, and what they learned.

“It was clear to me that the students’ discussion helped the board members realize how much students are able to give of themselves,” said Amy M. Krebs ’78 Lib, director of campus and community relations. “Judging by the questions they asked and the comments they made, the Advisory Board members were very moved by the students and their stories.”


Penn State Reach Out is a campus organization that allows students to engage in community service in a variety of ways. According to Dr. JoAnn Chirico, senior instructor in sociology and the group’s advisor, the club was formed as a result of efforts by students already engaged in outreach projects who wanted to give other students the opportunity to experience service learning.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Beaver County, which brings “littles” on campus to interact with about 30 student “bigs” during the academic year, is one way a student can get involved. Amy Gartley ’90 Com, associate director of student affairs, advises the students participating in the project and also sits on the local Big Brothers Big Sisters Advisory Council. 

“This has been one of our most successful outreach programs on campus,” Gartley said. “Over the years, the students’ response has really grown; it’s absolutely great to see their participation.”

Students also continue to work on behalf of the Women’s Center of Beaver County year-round by collecting toiletries, non-perishable foods, paper products, cleaning supplies, bedding and other necessities for the women and children housed there. 

In the fall and spring semesters, student leaders work in conjunction with the American Red Cross to host blood drives on campus to increase awareness of the urgent need for blood. The blood drives are open to the public as well as the campus community.

Other outreach opportunities include training to work for the CONTACT Beaver Valley Crisis Hotline, joining Penn State alumni on building projects for Habitat for Humanity of Beaver County, and volunteering at the Center for Hope in Ambridge, which provides area residents with food, clothing, counseling, and literacy and life skills training.

For information on how to support Beaver campus outreach, contact Chirico at jxc64@psu.edu or 724-773-3846, or visit www.beaver.psu.edu/clubs.

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