Service learning takes students out of the classroom

By Dariush Shafa, Messenger-Inquirer
Published: Sunday, October 24, 2010

Some of the most important lessons learned by students in Kentucky Wesleyan College's criminal justice program aren't taught in the classroom, but on West Seventh Street, at St. Benedict Joseph Homeless Shelter.

Dr. Ken Ayers, head of the criminal justice program at KWC, said this year's students are trying out an idea that he now wants to implement fully in the program. The idea, Ayers said, was to expand what students would learn.

"We give them an out-of-the classroom experience that is life-changing. Most kids today are in their own little world," Ayers said. "Most students haven't dealt with homeless people. (We're) putting them out in the field to work with people at risk. Life hasn't been kind to these people."

Students in the program must spend a minimum of 24 service hours working at the shelter. The students are paired with experienced volunteers and often work as servers for meals or as companions to listen to the residents of the shelter.

"One (reason behind this) is to put the face of humility on our justice system," Ayers said. "When you put a face on the problems, you can start to understand the problems. You can never fix the problems without understanding the problems."

Chris Wilson, a nontraditional student majoring in communications and minoring in criminal justice, said the time spent volunteering has changed her outlook on many things.

"It was very humbling that I left a place where people carry their belongings all day in a backpack or a plastic bag," Wilson said.

Thomas Gordon, a 23-year-old criminal justice junior from Jacksonville, Fla., who hopes to join federal law enforcement one day, said the time spent there has made him rethink how he looks at people. Gordon also has taken so much to his time volunteering at the shelter that halfway through the semester, he had met his required hours. He said he enjoys the opportunity to help out.

"I really recognized that you can't judge a book by its cover. You have to get into a lot of detail to understand how people get there," Gordon said. "It's a big eye opener for me, and I just like going down there. A lot of those people just need someone to listen to them. It hurts me to see people down there."

Justin Jones, 19, a criminal justice sophomore, said he wants to use his experience in the future.

"I want to be a police officer, but I look at the different side of it," Jones said. "Doing this, you have an idea of what they struggle through."

Gordon said the overall experience has been so positive that he said it's one that shouldn't be restricted to just the criminal justice program.

"It would change a lot of people. I think it would change a lot of kids' decisions," Gordon said. "That experience helps you mature a little more."

Ayers said the goal is not just to teach criminal justice, but also social justice. He plans that by Fall 2011, all students in the criminal justice program will do service learning of this kind.

"Socially, we have a hard time connecting the dots," Ayers said. "We have crimes for a reason. Once you start understanding the social justice issues ... and how our system responds, it makes you a better person."

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