Community as Classroom


By Lisa Murphy

a young girl gets her face painted in a classroomOne gets the sense that in her role as director for the Center for Community-Based Learning (CCBL), Bridget Brace-MacDonald develops lasting ties to Medaille’s students. Through the center’s projects she sees students gain a better understanding of themselves. They gain insight into their learning and its application outside of the classroom. Students understand that they can be change agents in their communities.

“A lot of students are aware of issues out there, but not how they can have an impact,” says Brace-MacDonald.

That’s where the CCBL comes in. It is all about making the connection between classroom learning and the realities of the community. “The CCBL is primarily concerned with course-embedded community-based learning,” explains Brace-MacDonald. “We work with faculty, students, and community-based organizations.”

Originally funded by the John R. Oishei Foundation as part of EQUIP, the CCBL has now been on campus for more than two years. EQUIP is an acronym that outlines the steps and progress for students during their time at Medaille, regarding community involvement. During the first year, students “Explore their community” and “Question their role” in the community. Each fall, all first-year students work on group projects in their Learning Communities to explore Buffalo’s assets and issues from a variety of perspectives. Students then present their findings to the campus community at the annual Community 101 Fair. In students’ second year, they “Understand their major,” connecting them to their community while testing out possible career options. Through “Internships, field experiences, and service-learning projects,” students build a future professional network for themselves and learn essential skills for their career paths. This portion of the EQUIP process predominantly takes place sometime between students’ sophomore and junior years. In the end, students “Produce new knowledge,” and are able to apply their knowledge to solve actual problems in society with legitimate solutions.

Having an impact. When students see the impact they can have by incorporating what they have learned in the classroom in an actual real world setting, the learning is deeper and more meaningful. That is just what students experienced this fall in Dr. Patrick Fazioli’s Urban Anthropology and Intercultural Communication classes.

Working with Brace-MacDonald, through the center, Dr. Fazioli’s students served at several different organizations in Buffalo, including the African American Cultural Center, Journey’s End Refugee Services, Inc., Jericho Road Ministries Drop In Center, The Belle Center and the Buffalo City Mission. Brace-MacDonald feels that one of the keys to the great success of his service-learning class was that Fazioli built time and reflection into it.

“One visit is great,” says Brace-MacDonald. “But visiting on a regular basis, with continuity, really makes the learning powerful.”

Dr. Bridgette Slavin, adjunct professor in the humanities department and Dr. Alice Villaseñor, assistant professor in the humanities department provided a unique experience for their first-year Learning Community students while working with Vive, Inc. and the Parkside Community Association. Vive, Inc. is the largest refugee shelter in the country. It is located on the east side of Buffalo in a renovated school building.

With the support of a 2012 Western New York Service Learning Coalition Faculty Fellowship, Drs. Villaseñor and Slavin worked to develop a project that would draw from Villaseñor’s expertise in the gothic themes and stories of the Victorian era, and Slavin’s expertise in magic and witchcraft of medieval Ireland. Their students created activities based on their study of the Medieval Celtic origins of many of today’s United States Halloween customs.

They also drew from their research papers about contemporary “Gothic” and “Fall Festival” celebrations around the globe, including Día de los Muertos (Mexico’s Day of the Dead), La Toussaint (France’s All Saint’s Day), and Yu Lan (China’s Hungry Ghost Festival). The purpose of the Community 101 project was to engage the students in thinking about the origins of the American tradition of Halloween and compare it to similar traditions celebrated around the world. The service-learning portion of the project was to introduce Halloween to the current residents of Vive la Casa, who are seeking asylum in the United States or Canada. The intention was not only to educate, but to entertain the residents and alleviate any potential monotony in their present circumstances. Based on their research and class discussion, the students identified culturally appropriate means by which to hold the party, which they discovered meant avoiding ghoulish decorations and costumes, but rather focusing on the theme of the fall harvest, sharing food and fun activities.

“The party was an absolute success,” said Slavin. “Not only did the children at Vive la Casa enjoy themselves, the adults were just as engaged.”

“Some students expressed interest in returning to Vive in the future to volunteer,” added Villaseñor. “I am sure the Vive staff — who was very pleased with the students’ efforts — would be very happy to welcome our students back again.”

Brace-MacDonald’s role allows her to be a facilitator. Once a professor contacts her about a community-based learning project, Brace-MacDonald tries to match a community organization’s needs with the assets of the students and faculty. She prepares students with workshops and one-on-one sessions, ensuring that things go smoothly during the project.

“I manage expectations on all sides of the equation,” says Brace-MacDonald. “I want to make sure that all involved have a quality experience.”

Equipping students for success. “Community-based learning is woven throughout the EQUIP learning experience,” Brace-MacDonald points out. “We see it as a powerful way for students to connect their academic learning with real-world problem-solving.”

The center supports faculty and students from their freshman year through to graduation. Brace-MacDonald has seen the impact the center has had over the years. It shows often in the reflection papers that students write after their experiences. “They definitely are getting a greater understanding of themselves, their discipline and the world,” she concludes.

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