Learning the Value of Serving Others

For more than a decade, students couldn’t find “CC 160 – Interpersonal Communication” in their Emerson course catalogues. This year, Communications Studies Department Chair Richard West resurrected the class.

Colby Jackson serving at the JVS computer lab.

West, who also serves as vice president of the National Communication Association, wrote the course’s textbook, Understanding Interpersonal Communications. To put the theories and terms from his text into practice for his students, West asked Suzanne Hinton, associate director of Emerson’s Office of Service Learning and Community Action, to arrange placements at local nonprofit organizations for the 35 students in his class. Hinton made partnerships with six different agencies in Boston that work with diverse and underserved populations.

“The goal of this service learning course component was for the students to apply interpersonal communication skills from class to real-world situations in a service capacity in order to learn how to contribute to communities in need,” Hinton said. “Civic engagement projects like this one help students enhance their social consciousness.”

Colby Jackson, a freshman communication studies major from Rhode Island, volunteered every week at Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), a nonprofit, nonsectarian agency that provides workforce development services to the Greater Boston community. He worked in the Refugee Department helping immigrants and others in need build the computer skills necessary to apply for jobs.

“The best thing about working here is that it is just so helpful to the students, and they are just so appreciative,” Jackson said. “One day they actually cooked for me, and I can tell you that they are all remarkably talented chefs. However, many of them are having a hard time finding work in America because they don’t know how to operate a computer.”

This was Professor West’s first time incorporating service learning into one of his classes. He said the course topic lent itself perfectly to a service-learning component. Students integrated lessons about listening, culture, power, nonverbal communication and emotion into their service activities.

“At Emerson, students spend a lot of time thinking about themselves so this gave students a chance to think about other people,” West said. “It’s the spirit of other-centeredness which makes for a well-rounded education.”

West took his first step toward other-centeredness a few years ago when he volunteered at a preschool where single mothers dropped off their kids while taking classes at a community college. There, he got hooked on the idea of helping a population that he wouldn’t normally be a part of. He said similar service activities for students not only help build their resumes but also reflect the educational goals of the department.

“Our department really talks about becoming a good citizen in a democratic society, and that is a fundamental part of our department’s mission,” West said.

Andrew Cassidy, a senior and communication studies major from Miami, served at the Hale House, a nonprofit that provides residential and supportive services for a diverse older population as an alternative to alternative care. Cassidy taught residents there how to use their computers and access online tools like YouTube and Google Earth.

Hale House Activities Director Clara Agoada said one 67-year-old resident bought a computer just so she could play Scrabble® online, but she had no idea what she was getting into. Cassidy showed her how to eliminate pop-up advertisements, navigate websites and send e-mails.

Agoada said the client mentioned how she wanted to thank Andrew for his help, and Agoada suggested, “Why don’t you send him an e-mail?”

Agoada said the client smiled and said, “I think I will.”

Throughout the semester, students kept a candid journal detailing their experiences and how they applied the theories and terms discussed in class. At the end of the course, students delivered class presentations on their experiences.

In addition to Hale House and JVS, students also worked with various health and wellness resource and support centers, including the Boston Living CenterRogerson Communities,Ethos and Ellis Memorial.

“Through service, while students are contributing to the daily quality of life of our neighbors, they are also gaining invaluable life experience as they navigate differences and commonalities through simple but meaningful interaction,” Hinton said. “Their focus on others also teaches them a lot about themselves.”

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