For over 15 years, Virginia Wesleyan University has offered a course that enables students to engage in the service of our surrounding community. This course, Service Learning and Issues in Civic Engagement, is held every January Term and is open to any students interested.
Since 2007, the course has paired with VWU’s neighboring homeless shelters, including Portsmouth Volunteers for the Homeless, Norfolk Emergency Services Team, Judeo Christian Outreach Center and the Virginia Beach Housing Resource Center, to shelter and support the homeless population. In the past, students were able to both host and attend the shelters; this year, however, the course looked a little bit different.
“Because of COVID, we were not able to take students to these locations, but we interviewed the principles of these organizations using Google Meet,” Communication Professor Robin Takacs said. “Students were able to get a sense of the mission of these organizations through pictures, websites, presentations and handouts, and, by asking questions, we were able to hear the passion that these people have to work with this population of adults, families and children experiencing homelessness.”
Although COVID-19 precautions prohibited students from attending and volunteering at a shelter, or even hosting one of their own, they were still able to walk away with the same message through classroom-style learning and by watching from a distance via Google Meet.
“The message is that you have to leave your stereotypes at the door of a shelter and listen to the stories of the homeless to understand this very complex issue,” Takacs said. “Homelessness can happen to anyone and many students realize that for the first time [through this course].”
The primary goal of INST 124 is to bring awareness to the very prominent and local issue of homelessness. The course attempts to change students’ perceptions of the homeless population and open their eyes to the realness of it right outside our campus.
“We have had former students become police officers, teachers, social workers, medical professionals, sports managers and recreational therapists who now state that after this class, they understand the reasons for homelessness in greater depth and feel more comfortable working with this population,” Takacs said.
In the future, the plans for Service Learning and Issues in Civic Engagement are ideally to engage students by returning “to the hands-on service learning that [it] used to provide in area shelters.” While students still enjoyed this course over this year’s January Term, there really is nothing like putting what they learned to practice in our local homeless shelters.
By Carey Seay