Spanish Department pioneers service learning courses for Faculty of Humanities

Last summer saw the inaugural year of the “Im/migrant and Community Outreach Internship” (SPAN 3F80) course, which was the first ever service learning course offered by the Faculty of Humanities. Created and taught by professors Irene Blayer and Cristina Santos, the course combines academic research on the migrant community and cultural identities with volunteer hours within the Hispanic migrant community of the Niagara region.

“[The course] is about the need for our students to be more aware of their community environment and the need to increase community involvement by our students,” said Santos. “It is also provided as a way of creating responsible global citizens.”

This summer, the course will run again for its second year, and Blayer and Santos have also created a new fourth year course, “Community Outreach and Research Internship” (SPAN 4F80), that will build on the skills and knowledge from the previous course. Both courses will provide students with the chance to use and develop their Spanish skills, actively contribute to the community and do their own research and presentations on a related topic.

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Ten students participated in the course last year, and the feedback was very positive, both from the students and the organizations which the students volunteered with. Two fifth-year Spanish students, Tanja Maric and Rose Davies, were in the course last year and they both highly enjoyed the experience and learned many new things.

“I never knew how big and important the migrant community in the region is,” said Maric. “Working one-on-one with the migrant workers hit a soft spot, because you get to learn where they come from and why they’re here.”

“It was eye-opening,” said Davies. “I’d never seen [the migrant community] before. We learn about these things in class, but we’re also sheltered from them.”

The course ran from May to August, and included 60 volunteer hours as well as reports, literature reviews and a final project. For the volunteer placements, students acted as translators in health clinics between migrant workers and health professionals and gave ESL classes.

Maric did her volunteer placement at a health clinic run by Quest Community Health Centre and found that her presence in the room as a translator made the patient more relaxed and comfortable.

“They had someone that could understand them and relay their message,” said Maric. “It became more personal because then they would start to talk about their families and their homes.”

Davies gave ESL lessons in Virgil through the Agriculture Workers Alliance as her volunteer hours. The experience gave her a real-life opportunity to practice her Spanish and develop her fluency.

“When you’re learning a language in class, it’s very structured and lots of memorization and repetition. Though this course, we were able to speak Spanish in a practical, hands-on way,” said Davies.

Preparation for the course began a full year earlier for Blayer and Santos, as they organized and attended meetings with a variety of community partners that made this course possible. They worked primarily with the Niagara Migrant Workers Interest Group (NMWIG) and the groups beneath the NMWIG umbrella, such as Positive Living Niagara, the Quest Community Health Centre, Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), the Agricultural Workers Alliance, and Niagara North Community Legal Assistance.

Students in SPAN 3F80 last summer present their research topics  / Irene Blayer

Students in SPAN 3F80 last summer present their research topics / Irene Blayer

The funding for the course was received through a Teaching and Learning Grant from the Centre for Pedagogical Innovation (CPI) and a Student Research Grant from Service Learning. Blayer and Santos themselves prepared and taught the course with no salary attached to the work that they put in.

“The initial planning phase of the course was extensive and very time-consuming. We volunteered our time with the community agencies in order for us to build the trust and rapport that would lead to the creation of the outreach course,” said Blayer.

This year, 12 students have enrolled in SPAN 3F80 and two in 4F80. Besides the volunteer placements in the health clinics, two more areas will be developed further this year: ESL teaching and popular education.

Maric and Davies both consider this course a highlight of their five years at Brock and an opportunity that let them experience the world beyond the walls of the university and make a contribution to the community, while at the same time making an academic difference.

“We’d like to thank Dr. Blayer and Dr. Santos,” said Maric. “They did this for us, to help their students, and their hard work has paid off with our amazing experience.”

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