This semester, the department of criminal justice, social and political sciences offered a new type of sociology course to Armstrong students. Dr. Alison Hatch, a professor who teaches both sociology and gender studies, teaches the new 4000 level sociology course, “Service Learning and Civic Engagement.”
Service learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility and strengthen communities. The class meets in a traditional classroom setting a few times throughout the semester, but they spend the rest of their time volunteering at Union Mission.
Alison Hatch decided to choose the Union Mission, a nonprofit organization in Savannah that helps the homeless, to teach her students about social issues.
“I wanted to focus on the issue of homelessness and Armstrong has a strong relationship with Union Mission. Students do service there during Treasure Savannah, and our President, Dr. Bleicken, sits on the board of the Union Mission. There are a good number of organizations that work to help the homeless in Savannah, but Union Mission seemed like a natural fit due to our existing relationship,” Hatch said.
According to Hatch, some of the objectives for this Service Learning course include giving the students the opportunity to work hands-on to help the homeless. It gives students a broader understanding of what homelessness really looks like, deepens their compassion, and provides an opportunity to make a difference. For the students that are interested in going into nonprofit work when they graduate, this class gives them an idea of what a career in that field would look like.
Hatch’s students volunteer and perform many tasks at Union Mission. She described in detail some of the tasks that they have performed. “The first couple of weeks was spent hearing from various people who work at Union Mission and what their jobs entail. Then the class began their hands-on service and have done everything from shredding papers and folding clothes to conducting classes for clients in conjunction with the Homeless Authority.”
Hatch also spoke about the renovation work students are completing at Grace House. “Our big project is to redo the common room for the Grace House, which is their men’s shelter. We’ve been successful in getting furniture donations from local businesses and we’ve raised money on campus from a bake sale.”
By the end of the semester, Grace House will have a completely renovated common area for their residents due to the hard work and dedication of this class. The class will also be preparing for an upcoming fundraiser in April. Liz Murray, the author of “Breaking Night: A Memoir” will be the keynote speaker for the event, where she will discuss her journey from being homeless to graduating from Harvard.
Kelly Nelson, a student taking the course says that she prefers service learning as opposed to a traditional classroom setting. She shared some of the things she learned through this course: “It was cemented in me that service learning and volunteering is NOT about imposing your practices, beliefs, values, morals on an organization or person. Instead, service learning and volunteering is about asking the questions ‘what do you need?’ or ‘how can I help?’”
Hatch says that she has noticed that students have increased empathy and understanding of homelessness that perhaps they would not have gained sitting in a classroom.
“There are a ton of stereotypes about homelessness, and don’t think any of these 19 students will walk out of this class believing that homelessness is about being “lazy.” Instead, this group of folks have come to understand that becoming homeless is a possibility for all of us.”
Nelson says that she recommends the course to Armstrong students because she believes there are only a few opportunities that allow you to look how a nonprofit works. Nelson also believes that courses like these create memorable experiences. Her most memorable experience was meeting a previous person who lived at Union Mission and is now successful.
“Through the efforts to find some new furniture for the common room in the Grace house, I was privileged to meet a young woman, Tyisha Weaver, who works at the Ashley Furniture distribution center. Usually when you call businesses and ask for lots of new/ gently used furniture you have to beg, follow-up, follow-up on the follow-up… It takes a lot. Tyisha on the other hand was so excited to hear from us.
“Turns out she had been a client of Union Mission. After escaping an abusive home, she and her children utilized the housing, education, medical care and support that Union Mission offers. She is now a successful woman and says she really owes so much to the Union Mission. She happily donated several pieces of furniture and will have an ongoing relationship with Union Mission in the future.”
Because this is Hatch’s first time teaching a course of this nature, she had a few concerns about the logistics. There aren’t many courses she could model for her class. She was concerned with the amount of time she wanted her students in a classroom setting and the amount of time they would be at Union Mission.
She was also concerned about her students being a burden at Union Mission instead of providing help. However, she says that her students are well-received by Union mission. Hatch is happy with the results of this course and hopes to create partnerships with other nonprofit organizations in Savannah. In the future, she is thinking about offering the course to students every other year.