Good Lives: Students Working Together to Build Community

by Wendy Fischman

At the University of La Verne, all incoming students participate in a first year initiative called FLEX (First-Year Learning Experience), in which students choose from twenty different “learning communities” through which they take classes and become involved in the community within and beyond campus. FLEX is the first experience of the larger “La Verne Experience,” a flagship curriculum under which the college incorporates its core institutional values of building community and fostering civic engagement across the undergraduate experience. The purpose of FLEX is to introduce incoming students to a model of college that incorporates academic course work with active community engagement. As it happens, the FLEX experience addresses a widely perceived misalignment in our colleges and universities.

Here, a La Verne student called Sasha describes how her experience working with women at a local transitional facility called Prototypes, has impacted her own views profoundly:

Initially, I didn’t know anything about these women besides the labels they were given—abuse victims, ex-addicts, criminals. After hearing these women voice their stories and opinions, I had a better understanding of [them] and realized their labels meant nothing. We were all just [people] bringing something to the table…What I can take from the experience is to not judge or be afraid of people with the labels I previously mentioned. They are no different from me—they have a story, a valid opinion, a sense of humor. [The experience] inspired me to want to maybe volunteer with programs such as Prototypes.”

In our study of higher education (click here), we have interviewed more than 2000 individuals across ten disparate college campuses. Of the approximately 1000 students to whom we have spoken, few talk about the role of civic engagement in their college experience—becoming part of their local communities. For the most part, our informants express feeling remote from the “real world,” as if they are hundreds miles away from the under-resourced and under-educated communities surrounding their respective campuses. In the terminology we’ve come use, there is lack of alignment between the desire to connect to “real world” issues and the apparent opportunities to do so in a meaningful way.

To be sure, this is not a new misalignment. More than thirty years ago, Campus Compact was formed by three presidents of higher education institutions to address their mutual concern that colleges and universities need to do more to encourage and support civic education and community development for young people. Today, Campus Compact is a coalition comprised of more than a thousand colleges and universities. In its own way, the University of La Verne, located 35 miles east of Los Angeles, and led by President Devorah Lieberman, also seeks to bridge the aforementioned misalignment, but the La Verne Experience, as it is called, is not just a single program or a single course. Rather, it is the whole college experience, from beginning to end. The school-wide “La Verne Experience,” is designed so that each year—through course work, service work, and structured reflection—students are encouraged to become responsible citizens within their school community and also with respect to the local community of La Verne. The La Verne Experience facilitates active participation in the local community by integrating academics with on- and off- campus citizenship experiences.

The first year of the La Verne Experience (dubbed “FLEX”) is considered the “flagship” initiative. It focuses on learning about one’s own identity and needs, as well as those in the broader community, so that students can connect with others in deep and meaningful ways. Through small, interdisciplinary learning communities of approximately 30 students each, students attend three classes together—a writing class, as well as two classes from two different disciplines—and participate in service work. The professors (who are also the designers) of each learning community collaborate on three missions: 1) to teach students about the key ideas and methods of their respective disciplines (e.g. learning about philosophy or learning about economics); 2) to focus student attention on a concept (e.g. the good life—consideration of the good of the individual versus the good of the broader community); and 3) to model the importance of service for all members of the La Verne community (e.g. by joining the students with members of Prototype). Participation among faculty is voluntarily, but they are compensated for their time.

Consider the learning community of “Markets and the Good Life”—one of twenty different learning communities offered to first year students. Professor Claire Angelici (writing), Professor Cathy Irwin (writing), Professor Kevin Marshall (economics), and Professor Richard Rose (philosophy) originally came together because of the intriguing resonances they discerned between their respective fields. The academic goal of this FLEX (known as “FLEX 7”) is to explore the definition of “the good life” through the different lenses of economics and philosophy. In the course of this course, the students identify problems in the local and broader society; discuss their perspectives on these problems in class; write essays on their respective topics; and make presentations about their “takeaways” to one another and to the residents of Prototypes.  

As one example, in an economics class, Professor Marshall discusses how scarcity necessitates individuals becoming economic beings. After a mini lecture, he cold calls on students to answer pointed questions: “What does scarcity force us to do in terms of daily choices and life decisions?” and “Am I responsible to help my neighbor or am I just responsible for my own life?” He specifically ties these questions to their philosophy course: “As Professor Rose might say, this is about greed versus self-interest… What would be the argument philosophically, from an economic perspective?” One student responds by relating the question to a conversation he had on the baseball field yesterday about a lopsided victory. He concludes, “When greed becomes something we’re hoarding, it becomes waste.”

Discussions and assignments are integrated across the three courses. For example, each student in Professor Irwin’s writing class writes a paper in which he or she presents a low-budget solution to a community problem. As an example, one student suggests a novel way to overcome the drought in nearby Chino Hills. The student suggests the purchasing of barrels for residents to use to collect rainwater. As the student argues, “You can use [rainwater] for almost everything except drinking water.” He claims that barrels cost $60 to $120 each, much less, in a given year, than the cost of bottled water people are forced to buy (which requires a trip away from Chino Hills) for laundry, cleaning, and other daily tasks. Via such assignments, Professors Irwin and Angelici help students to develop skills as powerful advocates and informed participants. Professor Irwin states, “I want to show [students] that writing is civic engagement… that writing can make a difference.”

Students of FLEX 7 are well aware that their professors work closely together, and credit the collaboration as central to their learning. One student asserts, “Even though FLEX 7 brings together two diverse concepts [economics and philosophy], it’s not about the divisions, but the connections.” Indeed, the professors of this learning community go beyond collaboration by also modeling responsibility for the community. For instance, in terms of structure and logistics of classes, Professors Marshall and Rose schedule the classes back-to-back so that they can sit in on each other’s courses, which help each of them make connections for students in the classroom. This scheduling also allows them to be flexible in planning—for example, giving students time in economics to study in class for an upcoming philosophy exam. Professor Marshall explains the benefit: “They saw me as part of their community, I had their backs.”

Students acknowledge that this care is meaningful, especially in their first semester, as they transition to college. One student says, “[The professors] help us along the way… you feel like you belong at this school.” Another student explains, “In high school, they said everything [in college] was up to you, college teachers won’t care. But they do care here. It’s not as intimidating as I thought it would be.”

With this model of care and responsibility for community members, students learn to be inclusive, respectful, and understanding of others, including those in their local community. Indeed, most students in this learning community describe their involvement with Prototypes as the heart of this learning community.

Starting orientation week, the students make their first visit to Prototypes. Like all La Verne first year students, they spend one full day of orientation participating in service, which immediately sends a message that community engagement is an important tenet of the college experience. Continuing throughout the semester, these students (and their professors) visit Prototypes three times to learn more about the center and connect with the women (and the women’s children who live with them). The nature of the interactions among students and the women at Prototypes are mainly non-academic; students help the women clean and organize common spaces at the center while socializing with the women and their children. One student explains that at first, he was “skeptical” about this volunteer work even though it is five minutes from campus, but that because of the “friendly environment” in his own learning community, he opened himself to form connections with the residents of the program, despite their differences. He describes his own surprise about the close proximity of serious problems and needs: “To think that a place like that is so close to us…there’s a lot more surrounding us than we think, we have to take our group and go help a good cause.” Another student describes how his own thinking about the “good life” changed over the course of the semester because of his work at Prototypes: “[I realized] we all have different views of the good life… For me a good life is about connections, it’s true… you have to know people, go out and meet people, understand your connections.”

Clearly, the FLEX program offers University of La Verne students many attractive benefits for opportunities to become active members in neighboring communities—“popping the campus bubble,” so to speak, by integrating academic learning with volunteerism in students’ daily lives. Through the learning communities, such as FLEX 7, University of La Verne students develop and maintain identification as members of the institution and participants in a special cohort. This bonding is all the more significant at this particular college, where many are first-generation college students, new to the process of navigating what it means to be involved in higher education. Professor Marshall asserts, “[Students] come in as individuals, but they leave as a family,” a poignant benefit for students since most of them do not reside on campus.

The umbrella program, “La Verne Experience” was originally developed by University of La Verne President Devorah Lieberman. Lieberman built on her previous experiences working with campus-wide community engagement programs at both Wagner College in New York City and Portland State University (in Oregon).  President Lieberman believes the La Verne Experience is a “natural fit” with the original Brethren values of the school, including diversity, inclusivity, ethical reasoning, lifelong learning, and community engagement. In her mind, though she brought some of the ideas to La Verne, the faculty shaped and now “owns” the experience.

As the school continues to further develop the other phases of the La Verne Experience, the FLEX program serves as a model for instilling a sense of responsibility and care in the hearts and minds of those on campus and those in surrounding communities.  Notably, the program foregrounds substantive academic courses in disciplines that can relate to one another substantively; rather than treating studying and service as two realms remote from one another, it models ways in which they can be productively integrated.

I am deeply grateful to Noemi Schor for collaborating on the research of this initiative, which included trips to the University of La Verne and many conversations with faculty, students, and administrators, especially Kat Weaver, who was enormously helpful. I also appreciate the support of Howard Gardner and Kirsten McHugh. This research was generously funded by The Teagle Foundation.

© 2018 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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