From Student to Educator: The Importance of Community-Engaged Learning

From Student to Educator: The Importance of Community-Engaged Learning

By Alexandra Wolkoff

Hi, all,

My name is Alexandra, and I graduated in 2014 having studied Sociology and Education. Immediately after, I began working with Puentes de Salud (Bridges of Health) in Philadelphia, through the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship’s (CPGC) Haverford House Fellowship program. I just began my fifth year with Puentes, having stayed on after the Fellowship, and am reflecting on the skills and mindsets that my time at Haverford supported me in building which now influence my work and career.

I consider my training in Education one of the most impactful parts of my personal development for the ways it influenced my growth and the ways in which I engage with people and the world around me. Each Education course involves a field placement, through which I had the privilege to work with five different schools and non-profit organizations across Philadelphia and Norristown, spanning children ages 6-18 and adults, as well as traditional classrooms, after-school programs, and community centers.

First, it’s worth mentioning that the engaged courses I took spurred me to learn how to use SEPTA for weekly transportation early in my college career. Through these six courses, I learned how to use four different kinds of SEPTA transit. More than just a means of getting from campus to my site and back again, the good deal of time that I spent on SEPTA was it’s own space for learning and reflection – on physical space, on identity, and on contextualizing the learning outside of campus. When it came time for me to visit and eventually begin working with Puentes, I already felt comfortable navigating various transit lines and felt accustomed to the multi-faceted experience of entering a neighborhood or place with which I was not previously familiar. In addition to acknowledging transportation and the logistical aspects of this work, it’s important to recognize the great learning experiences that even the act of accessing a location can, itself, foster.

In Multicultural Education, I worked with ACLAMO in Norristown, which serves the Latin-American community of Montgomery County. For this class, I practiced writing curriculum and lesson plans. This was a combination of hypothetical lesson plans that we shared only with our professor and classmates based on our experiences in the field – and actual plans that I created each week for the English class in which I worked with immigrant mothers from Mexico. Working with these women obviously created a much more immediate frame for the lessons I developed and allowed me to deepen them beyond what I could have learned about in a textbook or online. Six years later, these skills that I began developing there continue to serve me, as I write and evaluate curriculum and oversee the development of educational workshops for our youth and families across the age spectrum. In particular, the women and I developed many lessons around food and recipes (to practice numbers, verbs, and vocabulary), and this is something that we’ve built upon with our students and families at Puentes: the creation of a bilingual cookbook that incorporates students’ and parents’ voices, writings, and drawings.

Perhaps most difficult to categorize or measure but of great importance in my learning, I also practiced embodying different roles and identities in my placements – and noted the power and relational dynamics therein and any impact on the students and on myself. What did it feel like to act as a teacher – or a mentor – or a listener – or an observer – or a thought partner across these settings and embedded in deep webs of others and other relationships? There is no one answer or formula for how to navigate this, but it is work and an exploration that I continue to unfold every day with our students and families at Puentes, a space in which I play a variety of ever-shifting roles in and outside of the ‘formal’ boundaries of my position. The concerted reflection and analysis that the Education courses asked of me each week made this experience fruitful and opened important lines of thought that continue to underlie my work and personal development at present.

Of equal importance was my participation in the CPGC’s Migration Field Study in January 2011, through which I was able to begin learning about immigration and the Southern border and traveled to Mexico City with a group of fellow students and History professor, Jim Krippner. There, we stayed at the Casa de los Amigos, an international Quaker peace center that supports immigrants and refugees. After an intense week of learning, I returned to campus unsure of how to integrate my experiences; this experience had a profound impact on me but was one that was hard to articulate, even to myself. Looking back, it’s easier to see that this was a foundational step in the path I was building or following, even without my awareness at the time!

Three years later, I joined the Puentes team to take the next step in my work as an advocate for migrants’ rights and equity. As our Director of Education, I am able to integrate the breadth and depth of off-campus experiences that I was able to engage with while a student. I am excited to see, several years later, how much these opportunities have continued to grow and deepen on campus, including more and more professors shaping their courses as civically and/or community engaged and support from different centers and offices to make this a campus-wide benchmark in and outside of the classroom.

Curious about how these experiences can support your ability to impact the work you care about? Check out the array of courses that involve civic and community engagement for the Fall 2018 semester – and look out for those coming in Spring 2019! Visit the CPGC in Stokes to learn more about opportunities beyond courses and to continue the conversation.