Community Engagement Class Inspires Students to Effect Change

By Cathy Cruise

Students enrolled in the PSYC 427 Community Engagement for Social Change class expected to study issues of poverty and ways to transform people’s lives. What many didn’t foresee was how much the class would change their own lives.

“I will never see poverty in the same way,” says class participant Ruby Lyon, who received her BA in global affairs and psychology in December 2012. “I cannot say enough about how life-changing this course was. It lays out the puzzle of some of today’s more pressing issues and challenges you to piece it together.”

Psychology major Kelli Nicholson volunteers at Carpenter's Shelter in Alexandria for the  Community Engagement for Social Change course. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Psychology major Kelli Nicholson volunteers at Carpenter’s Shelter in Alexandria for the Community Engagement for Social Change course. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Mason clinical psychology professor Lauren Cattaneo created this course in response to her belief that students hold far too simplistic views on social problems–poverty in particular. People tend to see such issues in black-and-white terms, Cattaneo says, and as matters of individual choice rather than numerous layers of difficulties. She geared the materials in this course to help students examine the individual, interpersonal, and social context factors that play a role in poverty.

“Students learn to break down social problems into different aspects,” she says, “and to think about the work different organizations do in targeting those aspects, like providing people a place to sleep, teaching parenting skills, and advocating for affordable housing.”

To gain firsthand experience of social problems in the community, students are required to fulfill 20 hours of service per semester. This work is completed through one of seven community organizations that have partnered with the class: Horton’s Kids, FACETS, CentroNía, New Hope Housing, Carpenter Shelter, Wesley Housing Development, and Reston Interfaith.

Mason psychology professor Lauren Cattaneo created the Social Engagement course to help students. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Mason psychology professor Lauren Cattaneo created the Social Engagement course to help students examine poverty in a variety of contexts. Cattaneo and doctoral students alternate teaching the course. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

As part of their placement, all students have direct contact with the clients these organizations serve. This contact humanizes the social problem, Cattaneo explains, “and combined with the material we cover in class, it gives them a much richer understanding of the social problem. For example, numerous students have commented on seeing clients come to homeless shelters still in their work uniforms. We then talk about the concept of a living wage. For many students, I think this kind of experience awakens something in them—a deeper awareness of what is going on around them and a desire to do something about it.”

Students like psychology major Brianna Green have taken the outreach work even further. Green created a fund raiser for which she collected cash, sleeping bags, blankets, and coats, and then distributed the donations to area shelters.

Green describes the course as one that has altered her outlook on the world and on her own life, saying, “It’s been the one college course that has actually given me skills I’ve directly applied to my life and career. I do everything more consciously now. I have a distinct and strong desire to help selflessly.”

Senior Kaidee Milam, who is working on a bachelor’s degree in psychology, says she took the course as a way to get out of her “comfort zone” and challenge herself to think constructively and intellectually about social problems in the community. “Not only does PSYC 427 afford you the chance to really think critically about the world you are a part of, but it gives you the opportunity to actually be part of that change that you know is so desperately needed.”

This semester, the class is being taught by Jenna Calton, a clinical psychology doctoral student. Calton has always been interested in social justice and how people can make changes in their communities for marginalized populations. “Teaching people to think in that way,” she says, “really attracted me to this program, to teaching this class, and to working with Lauren and helping with other research that she does.”

This is the third time the course has been offered, and Cattaneo says she plans to teach it again herself in the fall, then to alternate teaching with graduate students. It is available to any student as part of the synthesis requirement.

Cattaneo credits Mason’s Center for Leadership and Community Engagement for helping to bring this class to life. “They are a great resource and are interested in facilitating faculty across departments doing these kinds of classes,” she says.

“I believe universities have a responsibility to partner with communities to make positive changes and bring their resources to bear on addressing social problems. As a faculty member, it’s incredibly energizing for me to find a pathway toward contributing to that effort.”

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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