service learning

Tree of life

A Liberian student named Evan made this collage of his family tree, with encouragement and help from Simon Vecchioni ’13.

Credit: Joanna Zhang ’13

Total immersion

In a course on childhood in different cultures, anthropology professor Marida Hollos asked her students to immerse themselves in the local Liberian community. The result: learning beyond the numbers.

By Joanna Zhang ’13  |  May 14, 2010  |  Email to a friend

For Brown students atop College Hill, it can be easy to lose touch with reality. But students in Professor of Anthopology Marida Hollos’s course, “Cross-cultural Perspectives on Child Development,” got a taste of “what life outside the Brown bubble is like,” says Simon Vecchioni ’13.

The course combined lectures, readings, and student-led discussions – a “regular anthropology course learning about children in other cultures,” Hollos says. Classes and conversation, however, were only the beginning. Hollos’s students were also required to tutor local Liberian children and youth as part of an after-school program, Youth Helping Youth (YHY), an initiative of Higher Ground International, a nonprofit headquartered in Providence that aims to uplift youth from Liberia and Sierra Leone.

At Higher Ground, Kaitlyn Scott ’10 dances with Miracle, a Liberian student. (Photo: Maggie Veiga ’12): At Higher Ground, Kaitlyn Scott ’10 dances with Miracle, a Liberian student. (Photo: Maggie Veiga ’12) The goal of the “service learning” experience is “not only to teach [young people] about algebra, but also [for my students] to learn about the lives of these children – some of them born here, others refugees,” Hollos says. “I wanted my class to get immersed in a culture.”

“Incorporating the community into the classroom is really important,” says Katherine Haves ’12. “I think we have a lot to give back to the city, and combining academic work and service is one way of accomplishing that.”

The course’s service requirement, which counted toward 45 percent of each student’s final grade, called for visiting the Higher Ground facility across the city once a week for an hour, although some of the Brown students went above and beyond. “We worked on things from Shakespeare to college essays to chemistry,” Haves says, “and we formed a really great relationship,” Haves says.

By embedding themselves in the community, Hollos’s students were able to gain first-hand knowledge of the culture and the people – “turning refugee statistics into people,” says Vecchioni.

Along with being tutors, the students became mentors and role models. Matthew Doyle ’10 utilized his belief in “sports as a platform for social change” to form a relationship with his mentees. “It evolved from solely tutoring to tutoring and having fun,” Matt Doyle ’10 watches students doing an art project at Higher Ground.: Matt Doyle ’10 watches students doing an art project at Higher Ground. says Doyle, who often brought sporting equipment to visits. With Vecchioni, he took a group of Liberian students to a local carnival.

For their final papers, Hollos’s students had to write about Liberian culture and their service learning experience. Topics varied from research on customary law and the court system in Liberia to life histories of the program participants.

It was really fun to hear about their lives living with their grandma on the farm, how many times they’ve moved,” says Haves, who wrote a life history of a 12th grade girl. “It took all semester to form a relationship where we were at the point where we could ask any question. [Then,] they were more than willing to share.”

A family tree collage by Scarlet, age 18.: A family tree collage by Scarlet, age 18. Vecchioni helped the Liberian children produce decorated family trees, which he hopes to turn into a book for program participants. Doyle hopes to merge his interests in sports and youth enrichment, specifically his club at Brown called Right to Play, with Higher Ground.

“The more you put into this, the more you get out of it,” says Doyle. “We formed meaningful relationships and built connections beyond the tutoring. At the end of the course, it was like being with friends.”