News Release: People

Aug. 25,  2009

Connecting the Classroom and the Community

News Article ImageVialla Hartfield-Mendez (far right, at Cary Reynolds Elementary) will serve as Emory's new director of engaged learning.

From Emory Report

In a Spanish writing course, students support Hispanic families picking up the pieces from domestic violence. In a business communications class, they create a lively video for the Sierra Club to encourage young people to conserve energy. And in the School of Nursing, they conduct educational workshops on good hygiene and illness prevention for the homeless.

These are the faces of engaged learning, where the student as community citizen becomes a springboard for academic discourse and introspection. One of the goals in Emory’s strategic plan is to produce socially conscious leaders with a portfolio of skills that are proven and value tested in community involvement.

To that end, the University created a position to encourage faculty to connect academic coursework with community-based service, creating mutually rewarding partnerships. Earlier this month, Vialla Hartfield-Mendez, a senior lecturer in Spanish and director of the Emory Scholars Program, was named the new director of engaged learning.

In her new role, Hartfield-Mendez will be based in the Office of University-Community Partnerships (OUCP) and will continue to teach one Spanish course during the academic year. She will work with faculty to enhance engaged learning opportunities, help establish new community partnerships and promote multi-disciplinary activities across schools to examine important public problems.

Hartfield-Mendez will provide faculty with the tools needed “to foster stronger connections between learning in the classroom and learning in the community,” says OUCP Director Michael Rich, an associate professor of political science and environmental studies.

The new position “will enable the University to more effectively prepare its students to become leaders who make a difference and in turn strengthen the societal impact the University will have in the greater Atlanta community and beyond,” adds Rich.

Hartfield-Mendez has successfully integrated community service into her courses, having students tutor at local schools with a high percentage of Hispanic students and at ESL classes on Buford Highway to better understand issues of immigration and U.S.-Mexican border relations. Several of her students pursued careers in nonprofit advocacy after graduation. It is important to create long-lasting relationships with community partners, says Hartfield-Mendez, understanding their needs and giving them a full voice in the process.

Emory is a recipient of the 2008 Presidential Award for General Community Service, the highest federal recognition of a university’s commitment to community service, service-learning and civic engagement. “We’re one of the trail-blazers for higher education,” says Hartfield-Mendez.

By 2012, OUCP hopes to offer engaged learning opportunities to students in all of Emory’s nine academic units. This fall, the office plans to resurrect a faculty fellows program that will energize faculty in regular conversations on the theory and practice of engaged learning. Mini-grants will be made available for faculty to weave service learning into teaching and research.

The service learning experience is not only a meaningful addition to a student’s portfolio, it also may also improve recall of key course concepts, says Sam Marie Engle, senior associate director of the OUCP.

“The students are making a real tangible difference in the world right now,” she says.

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