Anthropology Students Gain Cultural Insight Through Service Learning

Montgomery County Community College Honors Program student Sussan Saikali works on homework with Kevin, a participants in the Center for Culture, Art, Training, and Education’s (CCATE) after school program.

Montgomery County Community College Honors Program student Sussan Saikali works on homework with Kevin, a participants in the Center for Culture, Art, Training, and Education’s (CCATE) after school program.

Eleven students enrolled in Dr. Lynn Swartley O’Brien’s Honors Cultural Anthropology course at Montgomery County Community College recently participated in a service learning project in partnership with the Center for Culture, Art, Training, and Education (CCATE) in Norristown.

“I wanted to give [the students] an immersive experience in another culture,” O’Brien said. “I wanted them to experience culture shock and look at others, and ultimately themselves, in a new perspective.”

Throughout the fall semester, the students—all scholars in MCCC’s comprehensive Honors Program—volunteered at least two hours, one night per week as peer mentors at CCATE’s after school program. The program works to equip Norristown Latino middle and high school students with the skills needed to succeed socially and academically in American culture, while respecting their Latin roots.

O’Brien believes that service projects, particularly peer-mentor programs, are innovative because they create a mutually beneficial relationship between mentors and mentees.

“Students in CCATE had positive role models who helped them with their homework [while]…the Honors students reported that the experience was a positive one,” O’Brien said.

Cassandra Davis, one of the Honors students who volunteered at CCATE, felt culture shock in the form of a language barrier.

“My first Spanish reading session at CCATE made me feel completely isolated. All the students and even most of the volunteers could speak Spanish,” Davis said.

Davis could not speak the native tongue of many of the young children with whom she worked.

The culture shock did not last long, however. The reciprocal relationship of the mentor-mentee model was illustrated when two of the young mentees helped to ease Davis’s anxieties by teaching her some Spanish.

“I would help them with homework, then they would help me with Spanish during reading time,” Davis said.

Montgomery County Community College Honors Program student Samantha Smyth read with students in CCATE’s after school program in Norristown.

Montgomery County Community College Honors Program student Samantha Smyth read with students in CCATE’s after school program in Norristown.

O’Brien said that some students have reported that the experience was “life changing.”

This seems to be especially true for Davis, who still volunteers at CCATE even though the requirements of the project ended months ago.

Davis and her classmates are not the only students who have seen the value of service learning projects under O’Brien’s tutelage.

In fact, last semester, O’Brien had her online cultural anthropology students research charities that work on significant social issues outside the United States and Europe. One group of online students chose to raise money for Heifer International, a non-profit organization that works to eradicate poverty and hunger through sustainable community development.

“[The students] raised over $300—enough to buy a water buffalo for a family in need,” O’Brien said. “They learned about the sustainable gift of an animal—a gift that will keep giving and producing more for an agricultural family in need.”

O’Brien has also overseen fundraising projects that have procured money for Aid for Africa and other organizations. She has even organized a project that had students volunteer at a local excavation site as part of her archaeological anthropology course.

“Overall, I think my civic projects have been successful,” she said. “Some students have initially been resistant or indifferent, but many more students have had positive outcomes.”

Multiple Honors students reported that they have benefited from the cultural values they learned from the predominately Latino community at CCATE. For example, student Jessica Miller recognized the emphasis Latinos place on family.

“I believe there are hidden diamonds in every culture, and we need to be active in discovering them and, if appropriate, incorporating them into our own lifestyles. For example, Latinos highly value family relationships. I want to do the same,” Miller said.

O’Brien believes that anthropological studies are an important component of a liberal arts education, emphasizing multiculturalism for this very reason.

“Students in cultural anthropology learn about the endless cultural diversity that abounds in our world. It is amazing when students learn that things in their world that they take as ‘natural’ such as family, gender, and economics, can be construed and understood in profoundly different ways by different cultures in other parts in the world. I think it is inspiring,” O’Brien said.

“When we have the self-realization that our circumstances are a product of culture, we begin to understand the power we have to change them,” she continued. “As the anthropologist Margaret Mead said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’”

These lessons seem to be firmly engrained in Samantha Smyth, another one of O’Brien’s Honors students.

“CCATE has made me understand that it is important to be involved in your community and that things are not just going to magically get better in society. We have to work towards betterment and it takes efforts like this to begin the process,” Smyth said. “I now know that all it takes is two hours a week to change a young person’s outlook on things.”

Miller also recognized how easy it was to make an impact on a child.

“Because of [those] 10 weeks, I believe that I can make a difference in the life of a child, even if I never verbally express how important they are. By taking the time to listen to their stories; by chasing them up and down the gym; by dancing with them to help them memorize their multiplication tables, kids realize that they are worth a person’s time, energy, and resources,” Miller said.

“Overall,” Miller added, “service learning has a circular effect and creates role models for the next generation.”

O’Brien is encouraged by the work her students did in the fall semester and believes that she will see the rewards of this “circular effect” in the near future.

The mere presence of college students who care implicitly communicates a very important message to the young middle and high school students—that college is an attainable goal.

“I can’t wait to see some of these students at CCATE in my classes at MCCC in just a few years. I know that what we are doing there as mentors and volunteers will help to pave the way for these young people going to college,” O’Brien said.

~ by Paul Goraczko

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