Critical Thoughts, Compassionate Acts At Gettysburg College

By Heather O'Neill
January 8, 2010

While critical thinking is taught liberally on college campuses, compassion is rarely on the syllabus. At Gettysburg College, however, compassion is an immersion course.

The Center for Public Service at Gettysburg College is a community service program that whose motto is to "think critically and act compassionately." The program has compelled more than two-thirds of the student body, in addition to faculty and staff, to participate in service projects through four major program areas.

Of the College's roughly 2,500 students, more than 1,500 participate annually in service projects that range from a single day's work to nine-week intensive volunteer projects over summer break.

"We have four core ways in which students can get involved," Gretchen Carlson Natter, director of the Center for Public Service said. "One way is our student leadership program which hires 22 students per year to be program coordinators. As program coordinators they are responsible for specific [service] programs or partnerships and for engaging their peers in the work of that organization.

"As volunteers," Natter continued, "students can be involved in the programs that go on all the time, in what we call Reflective Service. They are coming [to volunteer] on their own accord. They'll come to us and say, 'I'd like to work with a child.' Or, 'I'd like to focus on hunger issues,' and we work with them to find the service that is the best placement for them in the community. Then there is Service Learning, which allows students to have experiences in the community that relate to the theory being taught by their professors."

Natter explained that academic departments and specific professors are able to customize course curriculum to match up to community service projects being done in the Gettysburg, PA community, allowing students to have both a hands-on and theory-based learning experience.

Summer internships in Gettysburg and abroad

Finally, the Center for Public Service offers the Heston Summer Experience, a nine-week social justice immersion project.

"The Heston Summer Experience is an off-shoot of the Center for Public Service," Natter said. "We often have students stopping by our offices saying that they want to do [a service project] during the summer. [Before the creation of the Heston Summer Experience] we were hearing a couple of things. Some students were coming in and saying, 'I want to work in a social justice/non-profit experience but I need to be paid.' Or they would say, 'I really want to do something service-related abroad.'"

Meeting both of these student desires was made possible by a gift from James Heston, Gettysburg College Class of '70. Through domestic and international immersion, students who win admission in the Heston Summer Program have an extraordinary opportunity to engage in the work of community action. Participating students focus on daily community development, sharpening their understanding of the complexity of social issues. By placing students in local and international contexts, the program offers rich opportunities for learning and action, allowing students to develop strong friendships and learn what it's like to tackle some of the world's most challenging problems.

"Jim Heston provided us with this gift and said, 'Create something in which students can have a new opportunity to engage with service," Natter said. "What his gift allowed us to do was to create a program that looks at what it means to participate in sustainable development and what that looks like in a variety of contexts. Students can apply to live and work here in Gettysburg and for that experience they receive housing...and then they are paid to work full time with a non-profit agency, or the student can choose to apply for one of the away from Gettysburg sites."

And away they are. Students with Spanish skills are eligible to live and work in Nicaragua for the summer, helping out with community projects and immersing themselves in the culture and language. Other students, like Tesia Jankowski, 19, traveled to and worked in Uganda.

"I went on a conference that had a big focus on social justice and global outreach, and it spurred me on to want to become a global citizen. I got an email about going on a fully funded internship to Uganda or Nicaragua, and knew I had to apply," Jankowski said.

Not just any student can decide to participate. There is an application process, which includes a face-to-face interview.

"We look at whether they have some past experience with some kind of service, and whether there is an openness to learning," Natter said. "We look at their current understanding, their potential and their openness to learn more. We also look at how it fits into their career path and whether this will influence future action."

The number of students accepted varies from year to year, depending on program costs, but has fallen between 10 and 16 each summer.

"[For all programs] it is a nine-week experience, starting with an orientation here where we explore the development means, what traditional and more modern approaches to development have been, and what the challenges and difficult questions are, and we get them learning more about the communities in which they are entering," Natter said. "Then they all embark on their nine-week internships -- some in Nicaragua and some here in Gettysburg -- and we keep in touch with them throughout the summer using blogs and online journals. They write journals to keep track of what they are enjoying and what they are struggling with and that is just another opportunity for us to advance their learning and critical thinking skills around these social justice issues."

Building a kitchen in Uganda

Jankowski was accepted to work in Uganda, where she spent the summer teaching English to a class of 54 children, and assisting the school in building a new kitchen.

"I definitely came out of the experience with a widened global perspective, and I see the world in a whole new light," she said. "I now see the difference between traveling somewhere, and actually living there. I had such a different experience living with a host family and sharing in their customs for two months, than I would have had I just traveled to Uganda for a week or so. There were so many challenges I faced throughout my time there, but I learned and grew so much through them."

Among the challenges for Jankowski was accepting the limitations of her experience in Uganda.

After conducting a needs assessment, she said, she was overwhelmed by all of the school's problems.

"I talked to the "head deputy" at the school, who took me around for about an hour telling me the problems the school had and how they would need to be fixed," she said. "At first, I was a bit let down. I had no idea how I was supposed to solve these problems, and I wanted to fix as many as I could. Then I realized that I was an intern for two months, in one primary school out of many in Uganda, and it put everything into perspective. I was not going to change the world, but I had to try to pick a sustainable project so that it would stick with the community. I chose to build a kitchen because the kitchen they had at that time was inside an old classroom, which was not built to be a kitchen."

Once she had zeroed in on her project -- a kitchen built out of cassava flour and sand, which creates a substance that is much cheaper than cement but just as durable -- Jankowski set out to raise the funds for her kitchen.

"I got $200 from the organization I was there with to help me start, and I fund-raised about $200, and then wrote a grant for about $550, which was funded. So it was set- we would build a cassava kitchen, and I had the funds to do it," she said. "I had the students help with some of the building to lessen costs of labor, while teaching them a useful trade."

An added bonus to the community? Jankowski's cassava kitchen taught villagers a way to repair their own homes.

"The parents came in one day to learn about the cassava mixture, as the community was very poor, and damage in houses often went unfixed," she said. "This cheap mixture would help them repair damage in their homes, which was hopefully a sustainable piece of the project. There were many complications along the way, but in the end it was really cool to see the building, and there was no doubt the students, parents, community members, and school employees were so thankful for what I did."

Making a difference

In the end, despite frustrations and complications, Jankowski feels she made a difference.

"I think my last day at the school was the most fulfilling. My class had prepared a few traditional song and dances, and performed them for me. The school gave me some gifts and had a special goodbye ceremony...I gave the school a tangible item -- a kitchen -- and they reciprocated with some tangible items.

"However," she continued, "I know I gave my class in particular something deeper and more meaningful. They gave me tears in a culture where it is frowned upon to cry, and performed beautiful songs and dances. They also brought me almost 100 avocadoes, a few pineapples, lots of huge stalks of sugar cane, lots of passion fruit, some corn husk dolls, letters, and many other things that they all had to help me bring back to my home, not knowing there was no way I would ever be able to bring them back in my one checked bag and one carry-on.

"I cherish the intangible gifts so much more because it shows me I had more of an impact on them than simply building a kitchen, and that a relationship is more sustainable than anything tangible."

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