University of Southern Indiana

Serving selflessly: Service Learning inspires students to get involved with the community

Marie's headshotMarie's headshotMarie Opatrny Pease has big goals for the Service Learning program.

Opatrny Pease, director of Service Learning, has been involved with the program for 10 years. With her recent promotion from coordinator to director, she is implementing a plan to achieve her goals.

Opatrny Pease’s primary focus is to expand the Service Learning program by increasing the number of students who take service learning courses. Studies indicate that being exposed to service learning and getting involved in the community early on greatly increases student retention, ability to effectively interact others who differ from themselves and promotes development of coping skills and soft skills.

“My favorite part of my job is working alongside faculty, while getting involved in the community,” said Opatrny.

When she was a full-time social work associate professor, she integrated Service Learning projects in her own classroom. One specific project that is meaningful to her was having her students conduct intake interviews with individuals who were homeless or near homeless during the annual Homeless Connect Event. This is an event that helps link critical services directly to people who are homeless or near-homeless.

This was a mandatory event for the class, where students conducted interviews with the homeless. It was a cold, rainy day and people were lined out the door. The interviews were being conducted in a small, crowded room. The conditions were uncontrollable and not ideal.

One of Marie’s students, Bryan Baker, was reluctant about attending this mandatory assignment. After attending the event and conducting interviews with the homeless, his attitude had changed.

“The economy was doing badly and I found myself out of a job while attending grad school,” said Baker.

After talking to several homeless people, he stopped feeling sorry for himself and realized how fortunate he actually was to be pursuing a career in social work.

“Participating in Service Learning opened my eyes to the homeless population in Evansville.”

Baker graduated from University of Southern Indiana in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and earned his master’s degree in 2011. He is now the director of Goodwill Family Center, an emergency homeless shelter.

These experiences and realizations are what Service Learning is all about. Students step out of their comfort zones, take skills they learn from the classroom and apply them to real-life situations. Service Learning is more than just volunteering. It is working directly with community partners to achieve a finished project, while learning along the way.

In the future, Opatrny Pease hopes to expand the reach of Service Learning by offering more diverse service-learning opportunities. She would like to increase interdisciplinary service-learning throughout the university.

To learn more about Service Learning, visit USI.edu/ServiceLearning or attend a monthly faculty workshop. Topics range from the basics of service learning to the use of service learning to enhance student learning, faculty teaching and scholarship.

By Maria Scheller, Outreach and Engagement Content Marketing Assistant

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