Community-Based Learning: An Academic Tool That Opens Eyes, Builds Bonds and Dismantles Walls

June 15, 2015

To Sociology Professor Corey Dolgon, it’s no surprise that community-based learning (CBL) is thriving at Stonehill. Like a lecture or a lab experiment, it has become a critical teaching tool on a campus where solidarity with other communities is a way of life.

Such courses have long been a part of the Stonehill experience but in recent years have become more thoroughly integrated in the curricula, spanning most subjects and majors. Dolgon arrived in fall 2009 as director of the newly established Office of Community-Based Learning, funded by the Davis Foundation to build the capacity of faculty and community partners to provide CBL courses. It was an academic initiative that reflected Stonehill’s sustained connection to the local community—one informed by its Holy Cross values—and a recognition of CBL as a high-impact practice that is effective in advancing student learning.

Growing Number of Professors Capitalizing on CBL Potential

Today, with support from the Office of Academic Affairs, its Center for Teaching and Learning and the Mission Division, CBL courses have more than tripled, topping 60 a year. These courses span every academic division and more than 20 departments, taught by three dozen faculty members who share an understanding of the real-world, applied-learning opportunities presented within the community. Courses are most often launched when faculty members approach Dolgon with an idea, or when they formulate one through the annual Summer Institute, which matches faculty with a community partner and student leader. The resulting courses range widely in scope and focus, sharing the common denominators of engaging in work with the community—whether through fieldwork or research—and requiring student reflection.

“The reflection has to occur so that students really grasp the link between the knowledge, the research and the community,” says Dolgon. “This is about linking a community problem with what the course content tells them about that problem.”

For their part, the 40-50 community partners that engage with Stonehill students reap myriad benefits from the exchange of knowledge and resources that takes place through CBL. These organizations, centered in the Brockton area but spanning to Greater Boston, address a wide range of social issues, from hunger and housing to educational equality and water availability. Stonehill students offer real skills and insight to partners’ programs, going far beyond what Dolgon calls “painting the railings,” instead taking on—and sometimes solving—real problems. At the same time, community partners challenge student assumptions and share in the mission to educate our students. The resulting bonds also help tear down the perceived divide between college campuses and the communities that surround them.

A Profound Impact on Students, Professors and Community Partners

Corey Dolgon, director of the Office of Community-Based Learning

The courses’ impact on these organizations and the individuals they serve is challenging to measure, but easy to find. Dolgon points to one example: 

A student who was inspired by a course Dolgon taught in the Clemente adult-education program at Community Connections of Brockton asked Dolgon for help. The student, who was also a local caseworker, wanted to know if Dolgon could help her clients—homeless individuals living at a Brockton hotel—to organize and improve their status. Soon, students from Dolgon’s Introduction to Sociology course, along with a student completing an American Studiescapstone project, found themselves doing just that. Among other results, this partnership with CCB and School on Wheels of Massachusetts, which contributed resources, has put a single mother back on her feet with rent assistance, tuition support for her daughter and career development advice that readied her for the job market.

Through experiences like these, students develop perspectives that deepen their classroom learning and gain an understanding of the importance of civic engagement. Post-course evaluations indicate that students leave CBL courses with an enhanced sense of engagement and power in civic affairs. These are invaluable lessons about what it means to be a citizen in a pluralistic democracy and a citizen of the world. 

Many of these students are learning about what it means to be in poverty, and the strength and intelligence of people who, if given a different life trajectory, could have been teaching the class or running a company.
Corey Dolgon, director of the Office of Community-Based Learning

“Many of these students are learning about what it means to be in poverty, and the strength and intelligence of people who, if given a different life trajectory, could have been teaching the class or running a company,” says Dolgon.

And the impact is often deep. Communication major Cristianie DePina ’18 took Dolgon’s Introduction to Sociologycourse this year, working with the Brockton Family Center, and is now working with Dolgon on a research paper about homelessness in Brockton. “If it weren’t for community-based learning, I could have just sat in class, only to forget everything I learned after the course was over,” says Cristianie.

The combination of scholarship and community engagement that faculty promote through CBL courses exemplifies the very heart and soul of the College. “We cannot separate academic inquiry from an ethic of responsibility; learning pushes us beyond ourselves to solve problems for the sake of the common good,” says Joseph Favazza, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “At Stonehill, community-based learning reminds us that learning with others for the sake of others is at the core of our mission.”

Here are seven examples of that mission in action.

Community’s Children Offer a Window to Brain Development



The dozen students who pay visits to the House of Possibilities (HOPe) at Stonehill College, a respite facility for children with neurodevelopmental disorders, do more than observe theories of brain function coming to life. Professor John McCoy, who co-teaches the Learning Community Neuroscience: Mind, Body, Community with Assistant Professor Heather Yu, finds that the experience also gives his students great respect for people coping with the very conditions they study in their neuroscience textbooks.

“It really opens their eyes to how challenging it is to take care of a child with a developmental disorder,” says McCoy, director of Stonehill’s Neuroscience Program. “It increases both their understanding and their empathy.”

The LC encompasses both Brain and Behavior and Neurological Basis of Behavior to show students the workings of the brain, including atypical function and how the nervous system controls behavior. The integrative seminar then requires students to spend Saturdays at the HOPe house—located at the edge of Stonehill’s campus—working with the children there, who have a range of diagnoses including autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome and Rett syndrome. Under a therapist’s supervision, the Stonehill students work to facilitate children’s motor, social and communication skills, applying understanding of current research to their disorders. Whether working one-on-one with a child on an art project or socializing game, or keeping a journal of a child’s eye contact, light sensitivity or language deficit, McCoy’s and Yu’s students develop a more personal view of the course concepts.

“When they come back to class, they have a much better understanding of autism than you’d ever get from a book,” says McCoy. “They’re seeing up close how difficult it is for these children to communicate or socialize.”

McCoy also conveys the material by bringing the community to the classroom. Two practicing neurologists from Boston hospitals—Dr. Adam Cohen of Massachusetts General Hospital and Dr. David Dawson of Brigham and Women’s Hospital—deliver lectures on applied neurology, offering hands-on patient insights and preparing students for their service experience with the HOPe children. “I don’t know many undergraduate courses that have practicing neurologists who come and teach,” says McCoy. “They help students see these issues from different angles.”

All told, the enhanced understanding of the brain’s function and empathy for those who suffer from atypical development help students see the profound mind-body impact of cognitive disorders. For those students planning careers in neuroscience, this insight adds human dimension to the viewpoint they bring to the field.

“Interacting with these kids made me realize that, regardless of their condition, they are special,” says Tina Ronson ’17. “They teach me valuable lessons I would never be able to learn from a textbook.”

Business Benefits, at Work in the Community


When it comes to teaching applied business concepts, theory is no match for practice. That’s why Professor Eddie Rhee turns to the community to provide a laboratory of sorts, where students can see business strategy turn into action.

Rhee currently teaches two courses with a CBL component:Retail Management and Direct Marketing. In his Retail Management course, an elective for marketing majors, students partner with a local business to evaluate existing retail strategy and make recommendations, applying retail management concepts gleaned in the classroom. Recently, the class partnered with a Brockton-based seafood restaurant, meeting with the owner to understand his business goals and the challenges of running a small business in a declining industry. Examining key factors like target market and demand, merchandise management, store location, pricing, retail communications mix, store design and display and customer service, and taking into account business growth goals, the students developed a customer survey and made recommendations to help revive the business—the best of which were used in a report and presentation to the business owner.

Rhee says the class is a win-win for the students and the business. “The theories and concepts work side by side with the real-world application,” he says. “And the business owner gets free external advice they may not otherwise have access to, to help them grow their business.”

In Rhee’s marketing-elective Direct Marketing course, which he has taught since 2009, students pair up with a local nonprofit—most recently, Community Connections of Brockton—to develop a direct marketing campaign that helps achieve fundraising or recruitment goals. Rhee works with students in small groups to create and send mailers to prospects throughout the Community Connections target area, and measures the mailings’ response through follow-up phone calls and email contact. The groups compete for the highest response, and the winning group is recognized. Rhee is proud of the response rate students achieve—as high as 4.2 percent, above a typical direct-mail response rate of 2-3 percent—and the lasting impact on the organization, which gains potential volunteers and donors through the effort. 

“The campaigns the students develop create a starting point for the organization to build even more relationships by expanding to their friends and family,” says Rhee.

All told, these classes convey business insights no textbook, or even business case teaching method, can provide. “A Harvard Business School case study—that’s someone else’s data,” he says. “This is realistic for the students, and I hear lots of comments from them, that this is knowledge they can then apply outside of college.”

A bonus for Rhee? “They’re also more fun to teach.”

Putting a Human Face on Youth at Risk


The first day the students in Ed Jacoubs’ At-Risk Families and Youths criminology seminar step into a local transition house for at-risk youth is almost always the hardest. Some even report later that they were “scared silly” before going. But by the end of that first day?

“They say they couldn’t wait to go back,” says Jacoubs.

The students, mainly sociology, criminology, psychology and education majors, visit one of several sites for a few hours each week to fulfill the CBL component of the course. This year’s sites are the Phoenix Alternative School and the Edison Reengagement Center at the Keith Center in Brockton, as well as the Transition House at the Old Colony YMCA. They meet with counselors who are running groups or conducting crisis intervention with a child facing adversity—from abuse and neglect to alcohol or incarceration—and observe behavior in a classroom or with staff at the site. The programs’ staff members supervise the Stonehill students, engaging them in conversations. Often, Jacoubs says, his students are able to immediately apply what they’ve learned in class to what they watch unfold at the community sites.

“My students can ask really informed questions, like ‘I was learning about this certain best practice—do you use that here?’” says Jacoubs.

Back at Stonehill, the students debrief and share observations. A major paper at course end requires the students to reflect on the literature around at-risk youth as it relates to their site visits, considering how their interactions have deepened their understanding of the material. Nearly every student leaves with richer insight, not only around criminology theories, but also humanity itself.

“I say to my students, ‘Look, not all of you will be social workers,’” says Jacoubs. “But many will be parents, and seeing these kids, what’s beneath their hard exterior, and understanding why people engage in certain behaviors—it’s a revelation that will impact how they parent in the future.”

Many of Jacoubs’ students do pursue jobs in related fields, and he says the class often has another fortunate result for his students: job offers. Over the 16 years the course has been offered, Jacoubs points to 30-40 students who have been hired directly into community partner sites, in teaching and social support roles. Hundreds more of his students have found similar social service roles at other sites after graduation, or chosen to volunteer at the sites to continue to work with at-risk youth in some capacity.

“Stonehill students just get this way of learning—it’s part of the social justice element that gets them to take initiative,” says Jacoubs. “The experience transforms their world view—it hooks them to be able to offer something of value to a child in need.”

Building a Foundation for Community Leadership


Lee Farrow has dedicated her life’s work to community organizing in New York’s and Massachusetts’ most challenged neighborhoods. She calls herself a “rogue academic”—mainly because her work relies heavily on practice and is supported or affirmed by theoretical frameworks—and for the past four years she has brought the lessons of leadership, empowerment, organizing and spirituality learned in the field to Stonehill’s classrooms as the College’s first Community Scholar.

Farrow’s CBL course, Community Organizing, attracts sociology majors with an interest in learning the fundamentals of organizing for change. In the classroom, Farrow combines theory, covering modern-day labor and social movements, with practical insight conveyed through stories and videos illustrating her community activism. “I try to give students a real sense of what it’s like to be in the midst of the actual work—that’s what they find most intriguing,” she says.

Farrow’s students then take on a community-based project of their own, participating in small groups in planning and executing a multiday set of events highlighting leadership in the Brockton area. Held in March, in partnership with Community Connections of Brockton, the events include the Women’s Leadership Summit at Stonehill, the South Shore Community Leadership Awards and the South Shore Leadership Conference—all designed to give the more than 250 women, men, teens and children who attend a sense of community, of connection and of possibility.

“These events bring together a wide range of people doing meaningful community work, to understand and acknowledge problems—then solve them,” says Farrow.

They come to understand the process of bringing people together with the goal of changing lives. Having this hands-on experience really empowers them.
Lee Farrow, fellow of interdisciplinary studies

Students participate by tackling every task necessary to run the events, from outreach phone calls and on-site childcare to using an evaluation method, the student-created Community Health Needs Assessment, to measure the needs and impact of Community Connections of Brockton’s work. Workshops and speeches at the events cover a range of key issues in community organizing, personal development, violence prevention, and faith and community. Farrow explains that her students’ efforts extend far beyond simply checking event-planning boxes.

“The students have meaningful engagement,” says Farrow. “It’s not just making phone calls—it’s delving into designing a conference curriculum that inspires real conversations with people about their quality of life.”

Through a final paper, Farrow gleans what impact the experience has had on students’ understanding of community organizing in practice. Although the events themselves aren’t building a movement of their own, Farrow’s students walk away from the course understanding that education, access and knowledge development are the fundamental building blocks of organizing at the community level.

“They come to understand the process of bringing people together with the goal of changing lives,” says Farrow. “Having this hands-on experience really empowers them.”

Capturing the Educational Power of Dance


Some are dance majors. Others, education majors. Many are athletes. But all 18 students in Valerie Robertson’s Dance Outreach course have a demonstrated interest in the power of dance to improve communication and learning in youth. Every Tuesday, the students in the elective course commute to West Middle School in Brockton, where they push aside the desks in a sixth-grade classroom and lead those middle school students in a dance lesson.

These lessons, designed by the Stonehill students themselves, are based on research demonstrating the educational power of dance. Many of the movements the students incorporate are adapted from a program called Brain Gym, designed by a noted educator, which uses movements like cross-lateral motion to improve balance and learning. Robertson’s students meet in groups of three to design a lesson plan—incorporating an ice-breaker, warmup activity, game and snack—practice the routine, then deliver the lesson in the classroom. For many of the Stonehill students, the process itself is a lesson in creativity. Some students incorporate existing experience with dance, from jazz to hip-hop—and their classes reflect that style. For others, choreography is more of a stretch. “These students aren’t necessarily dancers,” says Robertson. “They have to find a way to teach movement—so maybe it’s not a plié they incorporate, but if a student has a sports background it can be squats and lunges.”

The connection with Stonehill offers the Brockton sixth-graders enrichment opportunities that may otherwise be out of reach due to socioeconomic circumstances. “There is so little time for arts and movement in the school curriculum anymore,” says Robertson. “And they may just not have the means to take a ballet class.”

Teaching the class is not always easy. A wide range of students with different abilities and backgrounds—many of them challenged by health issues, stressful home lives or discipline issues—can, at times, present resistance. Robertson says she only steps in to mediate problems when absolutely necessary, preferring to let her students navigate and connect with the students independently. This in itself serves as a valuable lesson.

“Sometimes the class can get out of control,” admits Laura Aramini ’16, who also teaches ballet at a nearby dance studio. “I have learned to strategically form a lesson plan that focuses the children and lets them release their energy at the same time.”

Making Sense of Media for Local Youth



As media and technology expand their impact on our lives, students in Mediated Communication Theory—a capstone for communication majors—are doing more than watching from the sidelines. Through the CBL course, these Stonehill students are teaching the next generation how to navigate media in our changing world.

In Angela Paradise’s section of the course, students teach media literacy to middle school students at a Brockton after-school program, Davis Commons, as well as at the city’s Ashfield Middle School. The lessons, developed and delivered by Paradise’s students each week, focus on developing critical thinking skills around media consumption, messages and their effects on individuals and society. Topics touch on media matters that impact tweens and teens, including gender stereotypes, advertising and hypercommercialism, Internet safety, and the portrayal of race. Discussion of these topics happens around hands-on activities, from media clip analysis to the creation of a public service announcement reflecting the students’ new knowledge.

As they teach these concepts, the Stonehill students gain a better understanding of media theory through its application, and also help the younger students navigate the daunting media sources and messages they face every day.

“Often, there is little to no space in the regular school day for teachers to engage students in discussion around media use and messages,” says Paradise. “My students facilitate these critical discussions, and touch on important public health issues like food advertising, body image and cyberbullying.”

Assistant Professor Wanjiru Mbure, who teaches a section of the course in partnership with Brockton’s West Middle School, says that the translation of communication theories from college classroom to middle school classroom can bring real-world surprises.

“It enriches our conversations, and it also tests them, to see how the younger students respond to topics in the news,” says Mbure. “Part of it is seeing how the kids’ exposure to media is different from the theories we cover in the classroom.”

Sharing the Science of Teaching


STEM education is enjoying a moment in the spotlight, with media headlines and popular culture declaring the importance of science, technology, engineering and math. Thanks to Professor Eunmi Yang’s STEM Education for Teachers course, the positive benefits of STEM education are extending to a school in Brockton, as Stonehill’s future teachers prepare to incorporate STEM in their own classrooms.

Yang’s course, a requirement for elementary education majors, shows her students the value of inquiry and problem-solving—the fundamentals of science education—and guides them through the important process of preparing lessons, then delivering them in front of real students at a community school. After spending the beginning of the semester working with Yang in the classroom, learning theory and lesson-planning tactics, the students divide into small groups and visit the school for an hour each week. Though the partners have varied, the course recently teamed up with the Arnone Elementary School in Brockton, working with the third-, fourth- and fifth-grade sections of its after-school program.

“Helping a child build a love of learning is a wonderful thing, and the Stonehill students are doing this at the Arnone,” said Annie Martin, one of Arnone teachers in the program. “Not only are students motivated to learn and participate, they are gaining confidence in themselves.”

The lessons Yang’s students deliver are aligned with state and national STEM learning standards, helping the younger students understand a concept like energy conservation through a hands-on activity such as building a model house. For the Brockton students, the course inspires. It augments their existing after-school curriculum with a critical, but often underserved, subject area bearing future career potential.

“We’re planting a seed,” says Yang. “If these students, who don’t always have access to STEM education, can gain exposure to science by working with future teachers, that’s a good lesson.”

Stonehill’s students, non-science majors, often begin the course feeling tentative about teaching science; one student described it as an “‘I can’t teach science! I don’t even know science!’ slump.” But Yang finds that the process of creating and delivering the course content to diverse—and often challenging—classes builds not only understanding but also confidence among her students. She structures the community time so that each group of Stonehill students prepares a lesson and also teaches the other group members’ lessons, critiquing each other along the way so they can fine-tune their classroom style and approach.

Connecting with the younger students can be an “emotional rollercoaster,” with periods of increased and decreased engagement. But the frustrations of an unruly day in the classroom are accompanied by the rewards of successfully reaching the students with the curriculum. Overall, the ability to convey new material through these ups and downs helps Yang’s students discover they can thrive amid the demanding realities of teaching.

“I think, for many of them, the experience is the first time they can truly see themselves as teachers,” says Yang.

CBL Part of Multifaceted Focus on Building Community Ties

At Stonehill, incorporating a community element in traditionally classroom-taught courses extends the culture of service at the college’s core—reflecting its Holy Cross roots and values. Living and learning amid this culture provides students ample opportunities to connect with the community, through and beyond their courses.

In addition to academic initiatives such as CBL, there are several organized by the Mission Division. Many of these opportunities begin the moment students come to campus. During orientation, all first-year students participate in Community Engagement Day, which shows them what it means to be involved as a student at Stonehill through a day of work with one of several community agencies. As with all Stonehill community engagement, these are meaningful activities that combine with reflection to deliver real learning.

“These days of service make the students start to question what they can do about why people’s lives are a certain way. It makes them want to take more classes, and commit to understanding more about the community.”
MaryAnne Cappelleri, campus minister for Service Immersion Programs

“These days of service make the students start to question what they can do about why people’s lives are a certain way,” says MaryAnne Cappelleri, campus minister for Service Immersion Programs. “It makes them want to take more classes and commit to understanding more about the community.”

Other Community Engagement Programs

  • Through the Into the Streets volunteer program and the H.O.P.E. Service Immersion Program—a yearlong commitment encompassing a domestic or international service project—students connect with the surrounding community and in many cases with communities well beyond Massachusetts. Faculty members such as Associate Professor of Sociology Chris Wetzel augment service learning by traveling with the students and providing insight on the communities with which they engage.

  • The Center for Nonprofit Management serves as a hub for students to better understand nonprofit organizations and services, then apply learning through internships at those nonprofits. Professors provide expertise to local nonprofits, based on their respective research areas, through a series called BreakFACTS, which highlights issues of concern to the nonprofit organizations.

  • The Farm at Stonehill continues to expand its connections with community partners and learning opportunities for Stonehill students. Volunteer opportunities there link farm work with the concept of food justice, and the new Writing Fellows Program is expanding the land’s ever-growing use as a living classroom for faculty.

  • These experiences often leave students hungry for more—and the Stonehill Service Corps helps recent graduates extend their service work for another year. Living in fellowship in Brockton, the Dominican Republic or India, alumni participants discover the rewards of simple living, solidarity and service. Through partnerships and immersive volunteer experiences at organizations such as My Brother’s Keeper, School on Wheels and Trinity Catholic Academy, these recent graduates continue to learn through engagement.

Even without the formal Service Corps program, Stonehill students graduate with a sense of responsibility to the community, gleaned through both curricular and extracurricular engagement, imprinted on their hearts and minds.

“These opportunities change the way our students understand the world,” says Cappelleri. “They no longer think in the abstract about ‘those people’ trying to change their circumstances—they now see a real face, a name, a person.”

Community Partners, College Reap Great Rewards Through CBL

Their missions are diverse. They teach and care for youth. Feed the hungry. Restore families. Create opportunity. And every one of the organizations connected with Stonehill’s community-based learning program has discovered the powerful, mutual benefits of partnership with the College.

Community Connections and the Family Center of Brockton is one such organization—a longtime partner of the Office of Community-Based Learning. The 20-year-old organization serves thousands each year through parenting support and leadership development opportunities. The organization first connected with Stonehill’s courses in 2010 when Corey Dolgon, who was on a mission to expand the CBL roster, approached its executive director, Juliana Langille. Together, they brainstormed and planted seeds of ideas for courses, one of which—Community Organizing: People, Power & Change—helped launch the organization’s first magazine, Brockton Parent. The magazine is now mailed to 7,500 local families each quarter.

Since then, the college and the nonprofit have partnered on several more courses, including Lee Farrow’s Community Organizing seminar, which now supports a successful weekend of leadership events for Community Connections. These initiatives help the organization to better reach its constituents, and even expand and improve existing programs.

“These partnerships with Stonehill on courses enhance our resources and potential,” says Langille. “The students get to apply their knowledge—they see how a concept really works, from A to Z—and we get the benefits of that knowledge from people who do quality work.”

The quality of work is so high, in fact, that it often leaves Langille in a bit of a quandary.

“I’ve had amazing students, many of whom come back to volunteer with the organization,” she says. “But sometimes I wish I had enough money to hire all of them.”