At Rollins, our diverse group of community engagement courses delivers on the College’s commitment to service, synthesizing classroom learning with real-world experiences in our own backyard.
Photo by Bill Doster
Creating theater alongside adults with developmental disabilities. Helping fourth-graders ace their math exams. Ridding the Everglades of invasive species. Every semester, Rollins offers dozens of courses that feature a service-learning or community-based research component. These community engagement (CE) courses allow students to apply what they’re learning in the classroom to an issue affecting communities in our backyard.
Engaging students in roughly 15 to 30 hours of direct community-based work with nonprofits throughout Central Florida, CE courses allow Tars to make a positive impact through service while honing their knowledge through real-world experience.
“As a liberal arts institution, we know that integrating experiential learning into every course helps students have those ‘aha moments,’” says Meredith Hein, director of Rollins’ Center for Leadership & Community Engagement. “That’s where the magic happens.”
Hein says that two questions are at the core of every CE course. First: How do we take the theoretical knowledge being taught in the class and align that with what is going on in the community? And second: How do we get the theory to the practice so students have an understanding of what they're learning and are able to see it, feel it, touch it, and experience it?
To learn the answers, take a closer look at some of the 20 CE courses that made a big impact this fall.
Photo by Bill Doster
Partnering with the nonprofit Opportunity, Community, Ability (OCA)—and using theater as a medium—students cultivated positive social change by engaging with adults who have autism and other developmental disabilities. At the end of the semester, the two groups paired up to put on a performance in the College’s Annie Russell Theatre.
In addition to the community service component, students also experienced how a liberal arts education offers them different disciplinary ways of approaching enduring questions.
“Through brief introductions to fields like psychology and philosophy and film and neuroscience,” says Marianne DiQuattro, assistant professor of theatre and dance, “students can be empowered to explore different majors and examine their own vision for their future careers and the ways they would like to serve in their communities.”
This is the second time DiQuattro has offered this course, and both times she had students who discovered what they wanted to study or a profession they were interested in pursuing, whether that was working with children with autism, pursuing drama therapy, or finding an interest in stage management or production management.
“Being part of the disabled community (I’m partially deaf and fluent in sign language), I have to pay more attention to body language,” says Judith Laskwoski ’22, a pre-med major. “This definitely helped me at OCA because I was able to tell who wanted to participate and who needed more enthusiasm without hearing them say anything. By the end of the 10 weeks, we knew everyone’s names, everyone knew us, and no one was a stranger. Being able to forge those special kinds of friendships is something I think all of us will cherish for a long time.”
“My staff enjoyed watching the interactions take place where differences were accepted and understood, connections were formed, and talents were discovered,” says Silvia Haas, executive director at OCA. “Being part of a CE class not only changes the life of one or many of the students from Rollins College, but it changes the scope of a way a nonprofit views themselves. At OCA, we focus on ability, not the disability, and we have been blessed to be engaged with professors who believe in our mission and strive to make our community a better place.”
Whether you’re 19 or 90, photographs have the power to evoke a range of emotions and memories. In this course, Rollins students connected with members of The Mayflower Retirement Community to explore how photos shape issues of identity, history, collective memory, and memorializing.
“In our particular cultural moment, it seems increasingly important for conversations to occur across generations,” says Dawn Roe, associate professor of art. “This class is structured to allow plenty of time for discussion between Mayflower residents and Rollins students.”
By sharing experiences and comparing perspectives in small groups, students began to see how collective memory shapes our understanding of history, and the role photography plays in generating images that often provoke divergent responses to these narratives.
“For instance,” explains Roe, “a portrait of a soldier from World War II conveys something very different to the relative of a war veteran than a young individual of Japanese ancestry—yet there is common ground to be found, and it can be quite beautiful to see this revealed in the photographs the students produce, as well as their written reflections.”
“Communication is an integral part of human connection and in bridging differences between people, whether it’s generational gaps or not,” says Renee Sang ’21, a double major in critical media and cultural studies and studio art. “This class has given me a better understanding of photography in relation to memory by using an experiential, hands-on approach where we get to talk to other people, listen to their stories, and share photos.”
As an alum, Jana Ricci ’80, ’13, ’17P, The Mayflower’s director of marketing, is always looking for opportunities to connect Rollins students with residents of her retirement community.
“What was fun in this class,” she says, “is that the kids didn't ‘know everything’ about photography—the use of a camera, not their phones, provided a similar learning environment for both sets. However, their use of technology and the ease with which they work with computers and phones amazes The Mayflower residents. I’ve also seen the compassion the students gain working with seniors. Now that they have formed a connection, it doesn’t matter that there might be mobility issues, loss of sight, etc. The students adapt so that their older partner has a wonderful experience. True connections are formed!”
Exploring the newest communication practices—including blogs, wikis, and social media—students learned a practical approach to building their own brand and how that relates to constructing and maintaining the identity of a larger organization.
As such, they also produced strategic digital materials such as content calendars, infographics, and webpages for Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida and Limbitless Solutions, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering children through creative 3-D-printed prosthetics.
The key, explains communications professor Ted Gournelos, is conducting detailed research and analysis to understand how PR and marketing can make real change and progress within an organization. At the heart is strategy and storytelling.
“For example,” says Gournelos, “we learned that even the most beautiful website might not actually serve the needs of the community the client is trying to serve, or that infographics are rarely used effectively by nonprofits as storytelling devices. So our students proposed and created suggestions in both areas to effectively convey a story that could help each organization achieve its goals.”
“The class is like a crash-course training program for PR jobs across the globe,” says Brianna Barrett ’18, a theatre major. “There are so many things I never realized were so crucial to the PR field, such as a strong social media audit and concise branding, but we learned essential tools that will make our resumes stand out, and Ted ensured that each one of us has a strong portfolio we can share with future employers.”
“I continue to be highly impressed with the insights and ideas provided to our staff team by the Rollins students with whom we have worked,” says Greg Higgerson, vice president of development at Second Harvest. “We have incorporated some of the best suggestions into our marketing efforts. There is a genuine desire to make a difference in the community, and their input provides us with new strategies for today and also a window into our future efforts.”
Every Wednesday at 8 a.m. this past semester, math professor Jay Yellen drove a JUMP bus to Hungerford Elementary School in Eatonville, just 10 minutes from campus. There, his Rollins College Conference (RCC) students worked one on one with fourth-graders, helping them master mathematics needed for the Florida Standards Assessment exam.
“Watching my students build relationships with the Eatonville fourth-graders was wonderful,” says Yellen. “The self-confidence-building and growth seemed to be a two-way street. My students saw how they were helping the fourth-graders improve and gain confidence, and the Rollins students too seemed to feel better about themselves.”
In addition to its service component, the course provided a glimpse into a variety of topics, even a taste of the logic needed to tackle some of the oddball puzzles of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland and a professor of mathematics at Oxford University.
Students also experienced the expressive power and clarity of the language of mathematics while at the same time sharpening their reasoning and problem-solving skills. Other parts of the syllabus included set theory, logic, deductive reasoning, and proof techniques.
“It is so satisfying to see improvement from these kids week by week, especially because I feel as though I am part of that improvement,” says Mariah Haskell ’22, a computer science major. “I’d forgotten how quickly the understanding of basic math becomes habit, particularly in the higher-level math courses, where it’s routine to be able to multiply large numbers. It has certainly been beneficial to return to those essential concepts in teaching them as a reminder of the true fundamentals of mathematics. My classmates and I are able to give these children something to strive for.”
Letecia Foster, principal at Hungerford Elementary, appreciates how Rollins students helped her fourth-graders develop better interpersonal skills and more positive attitudes about school, as well as enhanced self-esteem and self-confidence in math.
“We also saw improved behavior because the student didn’t want to lose the privilege of working with the college students,” she says. “Rollins students did an awesome job. They were extremely nurturing, and our students looked forward to working with them every week.”
“Only in Florida.” How many times has that phrase been uttered in bewilderment? This course took seriously the popular perception that our state is the nation’s magnet for weird, surreal, and otherwise unbelievable places, people, events, and behavior.
By examining real-life and literary representations of alligator-wrestling matches and python hunts; drug runners and dumb criminals; murder trials and spring-break escapades, students gained a deeper understanding of the modes, agendas, ideologies, and perspectives that inform the creation and promulgation of myth, urban legend, reputation, perception, and “fact.”
In addition to a pair of service-learning opportunities—volunteering at United Against Poverty’s thrift store and removing invasive species in the Everglades—the seven-week course provided a way for students to travel to historically and culturally intriguing locations throughout the state.
“It’s sort of like a summer-camp experience where you have a group of people from a wide variety of backgrounds who are thrust together for hours at a time going all over the state, and you develop this really, really intense bond,” says Jana Mathews, associate professor of English. “Half the class was commuter students without that residential roommate experience, so this was a really powerful and exciting new opportunity for them. Cool things happen when you’re two hours away and eating French fries with your students and talking about life.”
English major Bria Buttafuoco ’19 is a self-described “Floridian since conception.” But, she says, “I hadn’t experienced the ‘essence’ of Florida until Dr. Mathews’ class. Despite all of the Florida I’d known, the scope of what it encapsulates never substantialized. Dr. Mathews has a talent for merging experience to understanding to emotion—and does so through a rich understanding of history and fascination with the bizarre.”
“It’s always a pleasure to see the next generation engaging in volunteer conservation work,” says Veronica Kelly, park ranger at Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Boynton Beach. “Rollins College was a fun a group to host. Students did a great job removing nuisance plants and trimming back overgrown bushes and shrubs around our visitor center and main parking area. We welcome them back anytime!”
This survey course—which covered everything from the definition and evolution of PR to specific communications practices in particular industries—allowed student teams to customize, pitch, and execute promotional campaigns for Kids Beating Cancer, a local nonprofit.
In all, 11 events were held across four social media campaigns, engaging 3,000 people in conversations about Kids Beating Cancer and pediatric cancer issues. Even better, Rollins students also raised $1,849 to decorate rooms and provide meals for families of children undergoing transplant treatments at Florida Hospital for Children.
“Childhood cancer is the No. 1 killer of children by disease, but less than four cents of every cancer research dollar is spent on childhood cancer,” says David Painter, assistant professor of communication. “Moreover, insurance does not cover transplant donor testing, which costs between $10,000 and $30,000 each time a potential donor is tested. What’s rewarding about partnering with Kids Beating Cancer is that their mission is to fund the match for children with cancer and to support these kids and their families through the transplant process.”
“Throughout this course, I found myself not only building my public relations experience, but also improving my conflict management, strategic thinking, and event-planning skills,” says Alexis Perez ’20, a communications studies major and Rollins chapter president of the Public Relations Student Society of America. “Because of the hands-on learning approach, community engagement courses like Contemporary PR make me feel as though I am better prepared for life after I graduate.”
Photos by Scott Cook
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