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Cura Personalis within Service Learning

Curriculum Innovation for Transformative Learning
A National Symposium
November 19-20, 2020
Virtual National Symposium 2020

Michael Finetti, Saint Peter’s University
Jay Garrels, Saint Peter’s University

There are 221 Catholic colleges and universities throughout the United States. Of these schools, there are only 28 Jesuit institutions of higher learning. The oldest institution is Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., founded in 1789 (LaBelle & Kendall, 2016). Personal freedom and social responsibility are two key components of the transforming power of a Jesuit education (Quinn, 2016). The ideals of a Jesuit education are forming men and women for others, developing personal potential, thinking critically, and communicating effectively. Caring for the poor and oppressed, seeking out international and global perspectives, finding God in all things, making a commitment to service, learning from experience, and helping students take responsibility for their own education are additional ideals embedded in Jesuit ideology (Saint Peter’s University, 2020a).

Saint Peter’s University (SPU), established in 1872, is the Jesuit University of New Jersey. The Jesuit identity guides the educational experience that students will have at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The prime educational objective and the ideals of a Jesuit Education all lead to the key principle of cura personalis. Cura personalis means caring for the whole person and developing the individual student and the individual person (Saint Peter’s University, 2020b). An important implication of this approach is that each student is unique and their diverse backgrounds are celebrated. As students matriculate to SPU, our community of faculty, staff, administrators, and more senior students meet incoming students where they are. The transformation process is rooted in the promotion of caring for the student’s mind, body, and spirit. This process of change is done with support and encouragement, but latitude is given to the student to make his or her own discovery. Within the curriculum, service learning courses are offered to students to allow both students and faculty the opportunity to learn and grow in order to live the motto of cura personalis.

At Saint Peter’s University, both faculty members and students are responsible for promoting the Jesuit principle of cura personalis.  Faculty members are encouraged to provide individual attention to each student, especially when meeting the goals of the University mission.  The mission calls for our students to excel intellectually, lead ethically, serve compassionately, and promote justice in our ever-changing urban and global environment (Saint Peter’s University, 2020c). Service learning is an effective instructional strategy for engaging students more actively in the learning process (Jenkins & Sheehey, 2009). Service learning provides the perfect teaching platform to achieve curapersonalis and the goals of the Saint Peter’s University mission.

Service learning at SPU is an innovative way to meet the Jesuit ideal of forming men and women for others. Service learning involves coursework that is integrated within community service.  It allows the outside world to serve as an extension of the academic classroom (Carracelas-Juncal et al., 2009). Students must perform service projects that are related to the academic content of the course. These service learning experiences are built into a semester-long course in which the content material being taught is enhanced by the service being performed. There is great power in the learning process when students are able to connect their learning to practical application. A final reflection project is due at the end of the course. The process of critical reflection moves the students towards a place of greater authenticity in their practice (Gredley, 2015). The strength of this program is two-fold. First, the program rests on support from all stakeholders, including administration, who understand that this kind of experiential learning is crucial to fulfilling the mission of Saint Peter’s University. The second unique quality of these courses, and of all courses offered at SPU, is that they are offered in a small classroom setting.

At SPU, the largest class that can be offered is 32 students, but many courses are capped at much smaller numbers. Small classes allow every student to feel like they are valued and belong to a community. In this setting, learning is enriched because there is more opportunity for deep discussion and debate, which is a great way for students to learn. Faculty are able to provide more individualized attention to students and give more direct feedback to each student. When this classroom is part of a service learning course, the smaller numbers of students allow for more organization and efficiency when providing the planned service.  In a small class environment, students feel valued, they perform better academically, and the take more away from their service learning experience because of the attention they were given and how much they were able to invest themselves into the course. (Toth & Montagna, 2002)

Saint Peter’s University has participated in meaningful volunteer and service learning experiences with more than 30 Hudson County, NJ, nonprofit agencies and religious organizations. Students and faculty have directly contributed to various social justice activities and the empowerment of local community members. As tutors, mentors, researchers, and social work assistants, students have shared their time with community members in need of encouragement, support, and assistance. Many faculty have offered service learning as part of their program curriculum (Saint Peter’s University, 2020d).

During the spring 2020 semester, with approximately 230 students participating in service projects at the undergraduate and graduate levels, our students accumulated a minimum of approximately 3,500 service learning hours in one semester (Saint Peter’s University, 2020e). Here are a few examples. In the department of health and physical education, students learn about the importance of health promotion through education and raising awareness. The students learn that promotion is particularly needed in communities where inequities and disparities exist. Students learn techniques and strategies for improving health through readings, lectures, and assessments. As part of the course, they also work with members of the local community to promote physical activity and nutrition. This is done through a partnership with a local K-8 school, where SPU students work with elementary and middle school students and their families to promote health and wellness through fitness and making sound food choices.

Faculty members from the College of Nursing partnered with St. Aedan’s Church in Jersey City, NJ, to support its Campus Kitchen, Food Pantry, and Clothes Closet. This service was built into a course in which nursing students presented educational programming to parents to help them become more informed about nutritional choices for their children. Faculty members from the physics department collaborated with local high school students to present short physics lessons.  In this example of service learning, SPU students are teaching what they learned to others. This reinforces the learning process. Members of the sociology department organized and implemented health fairs for Latino Engagement Education Program members. This event provided resources to this community, including health screenings, examples of fitness workouts, and health pamphlets.

In 2016, Saint Peter’s University received an historic $3.8 million grant from the US Department of Education through the Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HIS) STEM Program. The five-year grant was awarded for the project SURGE (STEM Undergraduate Retention Graduation & Empowerment). The goal of this program was to contact low-income Hispanic high-school students and encourage them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In the spring 2020 semester, during the suspension of in-class instruction in public schools, students at SPU still provided service learning to local school communities. A faculty member in the biology department created a program called Wavelengths, Participles, and Plants. Students in her class provided 125 science lab boxes containing plants to local high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The local high school students then worked through the experiments, collected data, and reported their findings (Saint Peter’s University, 2020f). This was a true act of cura personalis within service learning.

Service learning allows faculty to transform their classrooms so their students can learn differently. Students remark that their most memorable classroom experiences were when they were performing service as part of a course (Deeley, 2010). This shows the power that this type of learning can and does have on our students. Graduates of SPU embark on their professional and family journeys with a sense of obligation to continue giving back in order to serve others.  This is one of the defining characteristics our graduates take with them and can be directly attributed to the service learning they experienced at Saint Peter’s University.




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