When it comes to community involvement, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh takes its mission to heart.
Every day, students, faculty and staff on all three UW Oshkosh campuses turn the University’s commitment to community engagement into thousands of hours of service through volunteer work and class projects aimed at overcoming challenges and improving life in the greater Fox Valley area.
“Community and civic engagement experiences give students opportunities to practice the skills they have learned in the classroom. The experiences also encourage them to explore the community around them, exposing them to a broader view of the region,” Provost John Koker said.
Through UWO’s innovative University Studies Program (USP) launched eight years ago, all sophomores take a Quest III class with a built-in service-learning component.
“Quest III courses take students’ learning into the community for 14 to 20 hours per student,” Chancellor Andy Leavitt said. “Community partners are treated as co-educators. Since fall 2014, Titans in these classes have contributed nearly 138,000 hours of community impact to our local, regional and study-abroad communities.”
When adding in all the time spent on other civic and community work driven by UWO’s colleges, student organizations and athletics, the impact grows to an impressive 250,000 hours annually.
Behind each hour of service clocked lies a story of connections made and relationships forged.
For instance this fall, students in senior lecturer Shannon Davis-Foust’s Ecosphere in Crisis course taught tree identification, food webs, pollination and other environmental concepts at Omro Elementary School. One fourth grader found inspiration in observing bee behavior on white asters during an early October nature trek. “I learn so much more about animals and stuff when I’m outside,” he said.
Although USP marked the formal incorporation of community projects into UWO’s general education curriculum, some professors like Michael Jurmu, chair of UWO’s geography department, have been following the practice for years.
Jurmu has included a service project in his Weather and Climate class on the Fond du Lac campus for about a decade. Students first work in groups to develop simple one-hour lesson plans about a weather concept like humidity, temperature or pressure. After feedback from Jurmu, they teach the lesson at a local Boys & Girls Club. Writing reflection papers rounds out the assignment.
“I think the biggest takeaway we learned as we did the project— beyond just working with youth from a variety of social-economic backgrounds—is the youth looked up to the college students and the kids realized, ‘Hey, if they can go to college and do cool things like this, maybe I can too,’” Jurmu said.
In a recent UWO panel discussion about community-engaged teaching, Jurmu shared his experience and results from an article he published in the Journal of Geography about the benefits of service-learning. “Even an introductory experience can have a positive impact on the instructor, students and the community,” he said.
Centered on community
The panel discussion was one of the first activities sponsored by UWO’s new Center for Civic and Community Engagement that aims to build on USP’s efforts through partnerships between individuals and organizations in the greater Oshkosh area.
At the helm of the new endeavor is interim director Mike Lueder, who works alongside Jennifer Considine, UWO’s faculty fellow for civic engagement.
Lueder started his career on the Oshkosh campus by leading volunteer efforts and alternative spring break trips for Reeve Memorial Union. He draws on his own deep commitment to community service.
Through volunteer board work with Habitat for Humanity of Oshkosh and other nonprofit organizations, Lueder said he has added balancing budgets, hiring personnel and developing strategic plans to his professional skills set. He currently serves as board chair of the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry.
The new center will act as a “big umbrella” to support and unite community partners with students, staff and faculty, Lueder explained.
“We’ve seen by the data collected from Quest III classes that service projects work to enhance learning. Now, we’re looking for ways to develop deeper, broader and more meaningful community service experiences,” he said. ”We’re looking for that reciprocity … where projects mutually benefit our students and local organizations. That’s a win-win.”
One of the new center’s first efforts is to pilot the Growing Readers program in partnership with the Oshkosh Area School District and funded by the Oshkosh Area United Way.
“We are training UWO students to be tutors to help elementary school students develop their reading skills,” Lueder explained.
Seven UWO students served as tutors at Read Elementary and the Boys & Girls Club of Oshkosh this fall. Plans are underway to expand to 50 tutors next year with the development of a new Quest III course by Don Hones, a professor in the College of Education and Human Services.
“Growing Readers targets children in afterschool programming who could benefit from additional reading support beyond the school day. The goal is to increase student reading outcomes,” said Linda Kuhaupt, OASD literacy director.
The elementary school students benefit from the mentorship, encouragement and motivation provided by the UWO tutors, she said.
For first-year business and marketing major Randi McMorrow, of Kaukauna, tutoring students speaks to her passion for reading and has helped her get off to a great start at UWO.
“I love reading and want the kids to love it as much as I do. The kids are amazing and make my day infinitely better,” she said. “I think that community involvement plays a large role in not only yourself but also those around us. It helps us to see the world, and others, in many ways and helps us create a better community as a whole.”
Within just a few short weeks, Kylie Hetzel, a junior psychology major from West Bend, found interesting ways to connect with students she tutored.
A fifth-grade girl who struggled with reading admitted she enjoyed the sound of words read out loud. That led Hetzel to “take a gamble” and introduce the girl to poetry, including her personal favorite, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
“I read it to her, and she loved it,” Hetzel said. “After finding books she likes, she’s become capable of reading some all by herself, which is a huge step from where she was when we started. Now she’s taking home books to read to her mom.”
Hetzel is glad to have found a way to give back through Growing Readers.
“I think that as a society, we are obliged to do our part for one another in whatever way we can,” she said. “That said, even though I have these principles, it can be difficult to live up to them as a student. It’s easy to get swept up in college busywork and not make the time to help others out in some way. I’m very grateful for the way this program establishes routine community involvement in my life.”
Top image: Sophomore Madison Brzezinski (left) leads Omro students on an educational adventure.