Classrooms in Unexpected Places

Community engaged learning

Vialla Hartfield-Méndez

Parla italiano?” was the question—in perfect Italian—from an elderly Ethiopian immigrant man during an event in the “Somali Mall” in Clarkston. Emory students in anthropology professor Debra Vidali’s class were presenting a series of ethnographic research findings that had resulted from their collaborative work with the Somali and Ethiopian communities in Atlanta as part of an anthropology course. 

Professor Vidali answered in fluent Italian—not the subject of her course but a serendipitously and appropriately applied skill that accompanied her “back story” knowledge of a particular corner of the world. But the fact that Ethiopian men of a certain generation in Atlanta wished to communicate in Italian was completely out of the blue for all the students in the room. Why had he spoken in Italian? There is a historical reason that has to do with Italian colonization in East Africa and resulting education at the highest levels in the language of the colonizers that continued for decades even after independence. In fact, for the group of men to whom the students were presenting their work, speaking Italian is a social marker of belonging to the educated class in their home country. 

None of this was going to come up in the traditional classroom, and it would certainly not have been so vividly evident to the Emory students that Atlanta is now a world stage—a place where immigrants from all over the world now find their life paths and a place that has been fundamentally changed by these new community members. Nor did the student in the class who is himself a third-generation East African immigrant have any inkling of this aspect of his grandparents’ context until that day. 

This is the kind of teaching/learning moment that is possible when the classroom is engaged with the community, when community engaged learning is one of the organizing principles of a course, and when the classroom is, at least occasionally, constructed in the community.

Emory University has been transformed over the last half century from a small liberal arts institution attended by mostly white men to a major research university with an international presence, ties to the Carter Center and the Centers for Disease Control, and a vibrantly diverse student body. The intentional expansion of the notion of where the classroom is located—where learning happens—is part of this transformation. Community-based learning is an important part of this picture, especially in the last decade. The university’s current strategic plan includes “Creating Engaged Scholars,” and “Creating Community–Engaging Society,” which led to the Strategic Initiative “Preparing
Engaged Scholars.” Emory was one of 62 institutions classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in the new category of Curricular Engagement and Outreach & Partnerships (2008), and has received the Presidential Award for General Community Service from the Corporation for National and Community Service (2009). 

With the Community Engaged Learning Initiative in the Center for Community Partnerships, there has been a blossoming of opportunities for students to engage with local communities. These include 

  • “Beyond the Office Visit” and the Physical Therapy service-learning, School of Medicine
  • the Urban Health Initiative, a collaboration among Emory University’s School of Medicine, the Center for Community Partnership (CFCP), the City of Atlanta, the State of Georgia, and community partners
  • community-based research and community-benefitting learning in the Sustainability Minor, internships, and a whole range of community engaged learning courses, Emory College
  • the Leadership and Community-Engaged Learning program, Rollins School of Public Health
  • enhanced opportunities for students in the Theory Practice Service-Learning Program and the Pierce Institute, Oxford College

This is a small sampling—the list could go on. 

Community engagement provides many “teachable moments,” but more importantly, it provides what we might more accurately call “learnable moments.” In each instance of community engagement, students are challenged to understand that learning and knowledge creation are not the result of physical location in a classroom. Rather, not only does learning often take place outside the classroom and the bounds of the university, it actually must take place in those places if one is to emerge from a university education with the tools to meet the challenges of our increasingly complex and globalized world. 

In other words, an essential life skill is to know how to learn and how to continue to learn. An excellent avenue for figuring this out is a “classroom” that is a community center, a church basement, an “edible schoolyard,” a small cultural center in an suburban office complex, the headquarters of an international NGO in downtown Atlanta, a community clinic, a hospital, or a local government office. 

Key to this learning process, though, is the careful and thoughtful creation of articulation points between these unconventional learning spaces and the academic framework of the university. For example, a single, un-contextualized visit to a local middle school might be interesting (or bewildering). Let’s say, however, that you are in educational studies professor Mei Lin Chang’s course at Emory about the psychology of learning, and you are tutoring two students at Coan Middle School in the nearby Edgewood community over a semester. Observing their study habits through the lens of your course, you are more likely to understand the relevance of what you are learning in the course. Further, you are able to make recommendations about changes in study habits for those two middle school kids that are actually helpful. This is the key to community-engaged learning: it should be a mutually beneficial experience. As Barry Fenstermacher put it in Combining Service and Learning (NSEE 1990), “the goal is to blend service and learning goals and activities in such a way that the two reinforce each other and produce a greater impact than either could produce alone.”  

Community engaged learning fosters habits of active listening, careful observation, and thoughtful linking of different kinds of learning. It shows students how knowledge can be leveraged to make significant changes in the world, and it can reveal the remarkable connectedness of our twenty-first-century world. The Laney Graduate School’s Masters of Development Practice program, which primarily focuses on work in “developing” countries, intentionally links that work to local circumstances in the Atlanta area. While on the Emory campus, students work with local non-profit organizations and government agencies on projects focused on community development. Summers are spent abroad in similar organizations in the developing world. The synergy of these multiple “classrooms” makes for a unique and more nuanced understanding of development practice.

Creating spaces for learning while acting in a beneficial way for community requires excellent community-university partnerships that are sustained over time. Emory is a member of The Research University Community Engagement Network, an invitation-only group of approximately 35 institutions hosted by Campus Compact. Among these peers, Emory is a leader in creating and nurturing long-term partnerships that allow students from across the university to fully participate in local communities while advancing their own learning.