Service Learning Classes Build Community Connections

Editors’ Note: This feature appears as it was published in the summer 2019 edition of UT Dallas Magazine. Titles or faculty members listed may have changed since that time.
Kate Berinhout (right), a child learning and development senior at UT Dallas, took the #GOALS class in the fall and now serves as a teaching assistant for the course, which is designed for UT Dallas students to help immigrant students in the Richardson Independent School District.
In some of the newest UT Dallas classes, students help immigrant high schoolers with English. Another class talks to fifth- and sixth-grade girls about social media and bullying. And still another works with homeless teens in Dallas.
These classes are part of the University’s growing community-based service learning program, which gives students the opportunity to explore new topics while serving as teachers and mentors in the community.
The University received a three-year, $1 million grant in 2017 from the UT System for “Engagement through Collaboration, Mentorship, and Service Learning.” The funds were part of a broader $10 million initiative that provided for campus-based programs in support of former Chancellor William H. McRaven’s Student Success Quantum Leap.
The goal of community-based service learning is to increase students’ sense of belonging, one of three pillars that the UT System has identified as critical for student success. (The other pillars are finances and advising.)
The weekly, small-group classes have been a success, with many students saying the experiences were meaningful and gave them a greater sense of purpose, said Dr. Joanna Gentsch MS’96, PhD’06, director of student and community engagement, who designed and expanded the program across campus.
“Our students are gaining a sense of belonging by connecting with each other and people in the community,” said Gentsch, a senior lecturer in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
The program has expanded from one class initially to 10. One of the most popular is #GOALS, in which UT Dallas students help immigrant students in the Richardson Independent School District (RISD).
Ashlea Campbell, program specialist for Student Assistance in RISD, said the classes have helped students from other countries better adjust to their new schools. As a result, the district expanded the program, now at four campuses, and asked UT Dallas to create a class to address bullying for upper-elementary girls.
In addition to the classes in the Richardson schools, the University offers a variety of community-based service learning courses, including Hidden in Plain Sight, which involves working with teens at a Dallas ISD drop-in center for homeless students.
Another course, Juega Conmigo (Play With Me), facilitated by the UT Dallas Center for Children and Families, offers free weekly parent-child playtimes for children through age 3.
Other courses address topics such as Women in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math), LGBT issues, and pregnancy and parenting challenges.