Leaders for Social Change / A Faculty Perspective
Life at a residential college like St. Olaf produces many "network effects." The term is a fancy way to describe the increased value that results when lots of people come into connection with each other. Indeed that is a central aim of the liberal arts, to put chemistry majors in proximity to music students by enrolling them together, for example, in a philosophy course. Such experiences lead to new intersections among realms that might otherwise seem separate, helping students to recognize fresh possibilities. Ideally through the liberal arts students better grasp the moral aspects of the economy, the aesthetic dimensions of mathematics, along with realizing the diverse range of religious beliefs, eating habits, and future dreams held by their 3,000 campus peers.
St. Olaf's Leaders for Social Change program aims to enhance the network effects of the liberal arts experience even further. The program, run by the College's Center for Experiential Learning, places 9 students in summer nonprofit and community-based internships in Northfield and the surrounding area. Student internships have included such things as working with immigrant children in summer school enrichment programs, grant writing for a women's center, and managing an organic farm. The group shares a house together, making collective decisions and preparing communal meals, while also joining together for weekly academic seminars. CEL staff, St. Olaf faculty advisors, and the internship site supervisors provide students with structure and plenty of opportunities for reflection about the experience.
Participants in Leaders for Social Change thus are criss-crossed with connections. They of course learn about the complexities of the non-profits they intern with, expanding their understanding of the services provided and the challenges faced by staff and clients alike. Many student participants report a significant shift in their personal plans as one result of their summer work. They learn about the differences between the direct service level and policy work, about working with kids and working with their hands. But they also have the added benefit of learning from each other. Sharing a house and weekly seminars with other participants means that they regularly hear about 8 other internship sites, with significant opportunities to compare and contrast. They also have the chance to visit and even help each other with their internships, further enhancing their awareness of different organizations and styles of work and service.
The academic portion of the program further encourages students to connect their off-campus internship experience with their on-campus majors. The weekly seminars feature readings, films, guest speakers, site visits, and lots of discussion to put the internships into a larger intellectual and social context. Students better understand, for example, how food policy connects to health care and connects to inequality, all viewed through the prism of their daily work at a school or a food shelf or a farmer's market. The insights that students gain experientially and academically also provide further observations and questions to share with their future classmates when they begin the next semester's courses on campus.
Leaders for Social Change helps create other, more subtle links. The program provides a wonderful set of ties between campus and the neighboring community. The nonprofits gain the energy and skills of their interns, while sharing with students their personal experience and advice for the future. The ties remain after the summer, as many internship hosts have come to campus to share with the St. Olaf community in venues that range from the classroom, to the annual campus service fair, and to a panel presentation at the College's globalization conference. If St. Olaf is commonly depicted by its students as a "bubble," the LSC program is one of the campus initiatives working to counter that sense of isolation.
Student participants also provide an example to their peers. Whether through a comment made in class or a discussion over lunch, or a formal internship session arranged by a department, student participants have many opportunities to discuss with other students what they learned in LSC. Indeed a crucial part of a residential campus is the preparation one gets for leaving it. Leaders for Social Change emphasizes the importance of human connections in making a path through St. Olaf and later, a life after graduation. It shows that what students are learning at St. Olaf is not airy abstraction, nor is the college experience a series of rungs to be climbed mechanically. Rather LSC students learn that St. Olaf is about forming relationships between ideas and practices, between affluence and poverty, between one's immediate surroundings and the surrounding community. Ideally students in the program learn not just how they might want to work in the future, but also how they might want to live. In its three years of existence, Leaders for Social Change has created an ever-expanding network that helps make St. Olaf a bigger, better community.
Thomas Williamson is associate professor of anthropology at St. Olaf. He served in 2009 and 2010 as one of the three faculty advisors who work with the Leaders for Social Change Program. Click here for PDF version