Writing with a commitment to service

Demi-Lisa Kang, sophomore and alumna of McGrath’s class, as well as president of UGenerations, a club that works to bring cheer and compassion to nursing home residents in Miami. Photos: TJ Lievonen/UM News. 

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Demi-Lisa Kang, sophomore and alumna of McGrath’s class, as well as president of UGenerations, a club that works to bring cheer and compassion to nursing home residents in Miami. Photos: TJ Lievonen/UM News. 

Writing with a commitment to service

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
A freshman writing course at UM pushes students to get involved in organizations that benefit the greater Miami community.

When Simone Gibson started her freshman year at the University of Miami, the Philadelphia native knew she was interested in learning more about the school to prison pipeline that many underprivileged African American youth experience. But she had no idea how she would learn more about the issue.  

Yet through her first year English Composition class, she did not just research the topic. Gibson got to meet and mentor two young black men, ages 14 and 20, through Empowered Youth, an organization that works to stem the pipeline so that young black men in Miami will not end up in prison. Now a sophomore, she is still involved with the group and spends her Saturday afternoons in the UM Law Library with the young men who Gibson now considers her extended family.  

“I was always interested in the school to prison pipeline, so having the opportunity to see it firsthand, and how it affected them was an eye-opener,” Gibson said. “[Through my writing], I got to see where you can find solutions to the problem as well.” 

Gibson is just one student who has been affected by this introductory writing class, which pushes mostly first-year students to pair up with a volunteer organization and to write about their work with the group throughout the semester. She is not alone. 

Last year through the same class, sophomore Stephanie Bigger got involved with The Home Team, an organization started by former UM football player Alex Pou, which tutors student-athletes at three nearby public schools to help young sports fanatics understand the importance of prioritizing academics equally with athletics. And sophomore Demi-Lisa Kang got involved with UGenerations, which visits a local nursing home to do crafts and visit with elderly Miamians. This year, Kang is the president of UGenerations and said the residents complain if she misses just a week of visiting them. 

These continuous relationships are just what senior lecturer Kimberly McGrath Moreira in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of English hopes that many of her students will gain through her English composition class, titled “What Do YOU Care About?” McGrath Moreira said the class helps open students’ eyes to the world outside campus at the start of their undergraduate years, while also helping them to craft their writing skills. 

“A university is just a percolator for who we are going to be in the real world,” McGrath Moreira told one of her new classes recently. “We can spend a lot of time reading in our textbooks, but how do we apply some of that?”

The idea for the class sprouted from an experience two years ago when McGrath Moreira got involved with a service organization at the U called Exchange for Change. The Miami-based group creates opportunities for students to correspond with inmates in order to foster an understanding of the lives of prisoners and to help prisoners and students strengthen their writing skills. After working with the organization, and realizing the importance of community engagement at the end of her own college years, McGrath Moreira said she decided to design a class that would meld service opportunities with writing. 

“My job is to get them wanting to compose about something they want to talk about and also to prepare them for university-level coursework,” McGrath Moreira said. “Allowing students to choose where they want to do their research allows for a whole different experience of writing.”  

During the course, students find a community service organization that they would be interested in working with and writing about for the semester. To make this process easier, McGrath Moreira gives students a list that has been crafted and vetted by the University’s Butler Center for Service & Leadership, which has partnerships with more than 250 local organizations. Then, as part of the class, students must start attending meetings if they choose to join an on-campus organization, and to participate in programming and volunteering regardless of where their organization is located, McGrath Moreira said.  

“The opportunities and possibilities with these types of courses are endless,” said Lindsey Woods, assistant director of programs at the Butler Center, who worked extensively with McGrath Moreira to plan the class. “We want to cultivate this desire [for our students] to find something they are passionate about and to continue it.”

Last week, McGrath Moreira’s students got a chance to meet representatives from at least three organizations that spend time volunteering in the community each week. By this week, they must choose an organization that piques their interest. First year student Mikaela Ludwick said she was excited to take a class that required her to volunteer in the community. Ludwick was trying to decide between joining Love Your Melon, a group that brings knitted hats to pediatric cancer patients at hospitals across Miami, or Empowered Youth, the group that Gibson spoke about. 

“In Canada, my high school was very civically engaged, but it was never offered academically,” Ludwick said. “So I wanted to find a way to get involved in the Florida community and this class would give me the opportunity to be in a hands-on volunteer organization. It’s important to see the faces of people you’re helping and to make that connection.”   

Throughout the semester, students write journal entries about their experiences, and the final project is a paper where students must research the issue that their organization hopes to target, be it homelessness, opposing the school to prison pipeline, or others. Through the paper, students must analyze their experiences in comparison to the scholarly research that exists on the topic and then make suggestions for how their organization could be more effective.  

Although McGrath Moreira came up with the idea for the course on her own, she fine-tuned it while attending the Engaged Faculty Fellow program run through UM’s Office for Civic and Community Engagement (CCE) last year. Now six years old, the program helps faculty across the university to incorporate service learning opportunities in their classes, said Robin Bachin, assistant provost for Civic and Community Engagement. The program is part of CCE’s larger mission to promote teaching methods and research strategies that integrate academic knowledge with its real-world applications.

Across the U, an increasing number of professors are adding service learning components to their classes, Bachin said, to the point where there are more than 600 different courses offered at UM that now have a “civic” designation like McGrath Moreira’s. Although most are offered to undergraduates, there are civic classes for graduate students as well. 

Faculty from every school and college are participating, and that shows the diversity of offerings in service learning courses,” Bachin said. “So whether you’re a music major or an engineering major, you can still have the opportunity to take a service learning course.” 

And as both Bachin, a History professor who has also taught her own service learning classes, and McGrath Moreira have observed, although the preparation for these classes takes more time, the benefits to students are infinite.  

“Students understand that these classes have a practical application, and it gives them a sense of accountability to people beyond the campus,” Bachin said. “It also gives them an opportunity to explore organizations they might be interested in pursuing further, whether it’s an internship or a job.” 

Bachin said one semester, after partnering with the Tropical Audubon Society for a class that delved into Florida’s policy on Everglades restoration, one of her students started working for the organization.   

Woods at the Butler Center said she has also seen students who began volunteering with an organization stay involved beyond their college years, or are working for them today. The Butler Center for Service & Leadership works closely with the Office of Civic and Community Engagement to partner faculty with local organizations for these classes, but also serves students who simply want to volunteer in the community. Last year, UM students logged more than 150,000 hours of community service, and the center continues to see a surge in both professors and students who want to get involved in the South Florida community. 

We have seen an increase in students looking to volunteer and stopping by the office, along with an increase in the number of student organizations with a service focus,” said Andrew Wiemer, director of the Butler Center for Service & Leadership.