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Service learning takes Union students beyond the classroom and into the community

JACKSON, Tenn.May 6, 2002 – When Melinda Clarke, assistant professor of public relations, first came to Union University two years ago, it was with the intent to practice what she had learned in her graduate studies at Vanderbilt – service learning in the classroom. Taking classroom theory and applying it as a means of serving the community, Clarke has wasted little time in carrying out that goal and has assisted in setting up a valuable relationship between Union and the Jackson Area Chapter of the American Red Cross.

“I believe service-learning enriches the classroom learning experience by allowing students to work hands-on with real issues,” said Clark, faculty sponsor for the university’s Student Public Relations Society chapter. “Students engage with the community in ways that promote citizenship through an awareness of the challenges communities face which is usually followed by a desire to do something to respond to those needs.”

After the public relations chapter assisted in raising funds for the Red Cross in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Clarke took what could have been a temporary connection between the private university and the non-profit agency and helped make it more permanent – by offering her practical applications class to the Red Cross chapter for assistance with its communication needs.

According to Clarke, one reason the service learning method of teaching is so valuable to her public relations students is that service-learning involves real people, real settings, and real problems. Instead of dealing with “perfect” hypothetical classroom solutions, the class must create authentic, strategic responses to real problems. Sometimes these ideas work, and sometimes the class has to regroup and try again.

“It’s not like the teacher is lecturing to the students,” explains junior Summer Griffin, a communication arts major. “Dr. Clarke facilitates, but we all work together to complete a task, and everybody contributes. Working with a non-profit organization has given me valuable experience in the real world. I’ve learned to work with various media outlets, create press releases, and newsletters, all while working within a budget. I’ve really enjoyed the experience.”

The class created the official newsletter that is now used by the local chapter of the American Red Cross. It also helped to promote the recent “Spirit of America,” the recently held 1940’s-style tribute to veterans, which the American Red Cross is also using to raise money for local disaster relief. Students wrote press releases, planned promotional events, and contributed suggestions at the American Red Cross planning meetings.

This learning process, said Clarke, allows students to reflect upon how we must ultimately respond to life and the issues we see around us.

“I believe that service-learning empowers us to seek solutions to tough issues and that makes us better citizens and better Christians,” said Clarke. “This hands-on-learning experience has moved Union students out of the classroom and into the community where they are able to use their skills to meet the needs of others, while learning valuable workplace skills.”

Clarke plans to continue using this method of instruction as a practical hands-on method of achieving the educational goals of the class.

By Davie Moore,
Class of 2002

Media contact: Sara B. Horn, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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