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Community Connected Learning Course Spotlight: Cassie Kearney ’22

In the fall of 2020, Cassie Kearney ‘22 participated in the Center for Community Engagement’s first Community Connected Learning course. Here is the reflection she shares on her learning experience from the semester.

Last fall, Cameron Weiner (2020.5) and I engaged in service-learning through a partnership with the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) to complete a final deliverable/product for the Community Connected Learning course. Founded in 2004, CAE is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that strengthens the Hardwick and greater Vermont food system by implementing programs that increase farm and community viability. Our interests and aspirations to diminish food insecurity while forming intimate connections with Vermont communities aligned well with CAE’s mission. For our final project, we constructed a COVID-19 impact assessment, which we titled, “Voices of the Pandemic: Perseverance, Hope, and Community.” We wove together personal narratives and published research to identify successes of CAE’s impacts on Northeast Kingdom (NEK) communities, specifically Hardwick, and to recognize needs and gaps where individuals were lacking/slip between the cracks. Our deliverable only contains one small glimpse of CAE’s COVID-19 response and impact, featuring the voices of farmers who have received resources and support from CAE, participants in the Hardwick Community Meals program, garden bed recipients, Grow Your Own workshop leaders, and community organizers involved in the Hardwick Area Food Pantry (HAFP) and the Hardwick Area Neighbor to Neighbor (HANN) group. By discussing personal narratives and pandemic data, we hoped that it would become evident how relief programs had been fruitful thus far and how these initiatives could be more diverse and effective as the COVID-19 crisis continues.

I loved my experience in this class because of how service was naturally intertwined within an academic curriculum. Understanding why communities are in need of resources, specific assistance, or care is the first step in deconstructing dominating power structures and dismantling the inequalities that sustain them in the first place. The overall success of the partnership made me so grateful for the opportunities provided by Middlebury, and working with CAE has been one of the most enriching, rewarding experiences of my college career so far. I was able to have an unparalleled, immersive semester in collaboration with CAE and community members despite never physically being present in Hardwick. I believe that this success speaks to the significance of the two-way street and reciprocity inherent in service-learning. Accountability and a shared knowledge of each side’s capacities, limitations, strengths, and weaknesses are critical in forming partnerships. If students are not wholly committed and focused on how they can best contribute to a specific community’s needs and strengths, then the organization can suffer detrimental effects – ultimately, the partnership could develop into a time and energy sink. Fortunately, that was not the case at all in my work with CAE.

My favorite part of the course/my project would definitely be forming relationships with the CAE staff and Hardwick community members. The enthusiasm, generosity, and mission of the CAE staff, along with the passions and excitements of my course instructors, made this service-learning experience so fun and fulfilling. The workload for the class never really felt like actual homework – I enjoyed what I was doing and realized I could actually help others in a virtual manner. In general, community engagement is so important to me because I love helping other individuals. Also, all of the community members that I interviewed or spoke with were so welcoming and receptive even though I was the outsider. I was very careful when navigating this line between learning about the community for my project and intruding on the good of the community/studying the community for academic obligations. Published literature shows many issues with short-term service-learning and the goals of higher institutions of learning. My supervisor, Lylee, once mentioned: “The best partnerships are the ones when both sides feel like they got the better deal.” I always tried to maintain reciprocity in my collaborative work with CAE, and I think that our partnership turned out the most fruitful that it could have been in COVID-19 times.

Seeing what I was learning in class being put into action or experiential learning was so valuable for my future goals to do nonprofit work in the Public Health field. I could witness how academic principles played out in my own experiences with community members and the CAE staff. Throughout the course and my partnership, I learned how to best identify and describe self-reflective practices, active listening, social location, privilege, and positionality. Fully comprehending how these personal factors impacted my perspectives and evaluations of a community separate from my own challenged me and pushed me to analyze common judgements and stereotypes. I learned to never take anything at face value; assumptions often automatically create barriers and further exclude members of society who are discriminated against or disadvantaged. Lastly, I have become mindful of the dangers of shaping communities as entities in deficit and shifting my frames of references to understand the situations of individuals divergent from my own situation here on campus and in the broader Middlebury community.

After Middlebury, I plan to get a higher degree in Public Health with a concentration in community or behavioral health. I would love to engage in nonprofit collaboration, so this course and partnership definitely prepared me for my future endeavors. This summer, I will also be working in a similar partnership program through the Forest Foundation. I will be making my own project by working with a nonprofit in the Boston area (organization is TBD). In addition, this course taught me how to concretely explain my goals and intentions (even when they aren’t fully formed!), to have confidence when facing obstacles or uncomfortable interactions, to utilize my creativity without fear, and to research and examine issues independently with a great deal of freedom.

Highlight: Community Connected Learning (CCL) Course

As a member of the larger Experiential Learning Center (ELC) ecosystem with the Center for Careers and Internships and the Innovation Hub, the Center for Community Engagement (CCE) is the primary site for students and local partners wishing to involve themselves in roles with activities that strengthen communities and contribute to the public good. 

Recently, however, the Center for Community Engagement has been able to branch itself out and expand its purpose into the academically-credited arena through its Community Connected Learning (CCL) course. For years, the CCE has been collaborating with faculty in stimulating community-connected experiential learning opportunities for students. To continue this aspect as well as to make the opportunities more versatile and with a project-focused format, the CCL class was developed. The creation of the course also stems from the cravings students expressed for experiential learning opportunities in and out of the classroom. Thus, the CCE launched its first CCL course in the fall of 2020 as a way to support students in their community-connected learning ventures. The course instructors were CCE Director, Ashley Laux, Assistant Director, Jason Duquette-Hoffman, and Assistant Director,  Kristen Mullins. 

To give students another chance to pair community engagement services with academic credit, the CCL course was offered again to students this Spring 2021. This semester, the class is led by CCE Assistant Directors Jason Duquette-Hoffman and Kristen Mullins, and Program Director, Kailee Brickner-McDonald. For both Fall and Spring, the class had 47 students altogether who participated and developed various projects topics with community partners. 

By offering the Community Connected Learning course, the CCE is able to broaden its work and mission goal. When asked how this class connects to the center’s objective and the College’s mission, the instructors collectively responded, “CCE’s work and mission carries some assumptions. A core assumption is that the liberal arts has a responsibility to the public good. We also believe that students’ civic development – their sense of themselves as active and contributing members in their communities; and the skills and knowledge to be successful in that work – are important elements of their liberal arts education. And that we – staff, faculty, students – are members of the communities in which we are learning; and as such have an ethical responsibility to do no harm. And, ideally, that we are contributing to the public good of these communities.” 

The CCE also hopes the class will prove beneficial to both students and community partners. Instructors of the class expressed their hope to “deepen students’ civic knowledge, skills, and identities through work that matters in the current moment, with partners in our communities who have so much to teach us.” Additionally, the instructors shared the collaborative nature of the relationships between students and community partners that make their involvement full of transferable lessons and meaning with each other. 

Instructors encourage students to take this course not only for its cross collaboration with local partners but also because of the empathy, perspective grasping, awareness of self and others one may gain from it.

Two students share their experiences towards the course’s positive influence for engaging in community projects. 

Emily Carfi 

Class Year: 2021

Major: Psychology Major, GSFS minor

For my project, I continued my work with Charter House Coalition, a homeless shelter located here in Middlebury. My project focused on homelessness and food insecurity during the pandemic and I worked to coordinate a safe, off-campus cooking group to provide a weekly meal for the shelter with other students, while following Covid safety guidelines. In addition to this, I created a “crowd” recipes list with dishes that can serve roughly 100 individuals. These recipes also include vegan and vegetarian alternatives to serve all guests at Charter House and to create a more inclusive meal experience.

This course was a great way for me to pursue community work with great guidance during such a difficult time of year. I learned about fellow Midd students’ involvement in the community, and I also learned about different organizations that are located in Addition County, which I hadn’t heard of before. It was so inspiring to see how all these students contributed to different organizations meant to serve different groups of people in need. I also learned a lot about what it means to engage in service learning, which is separate from volunteerism, and this is a crucial aspect to community involvement. I additionally gained a lot of communication skills, while expanding upon some existing organizational and work-related skills. This course was so beneficial and couldn’t have been introduced at a better time. In the end, we provided likely 500+ meals in the Fall semester, which was an exceptional accomplishment that I am proud to have been a part of facilitating.

I still am continuing my community work during my last semester here at Middlebury, working closely with Charter House to provide a weekly meal and to get students involved in community engagement. I have always had a passion for helping the community, but this course has helped me to progress this passion and utilize skills to the best of my ability.

Emily Hyer

Class Year: 2023

Major: Neuroscience major, Spanish and Global Health double minor

I worked with an organization called the Early Care and Learning Partnership. We researched early child care in Addison County and its relationship to health outcomes and COVID-19. My work involved interviewing child care experts, sending out a survey, and setting up social media like mail chimp and Facebook. I really enjoyed the course and how you could make it into an experience that best suits your interests.  I learned a lot about what community engagement means and how it is best used in a specific community. It also taught me the necessary skills to work in a community mindfully and ethically. I also learned a lot of personal skills from my project work–communication, active listening, and how to be organized and professional.

My favorite part was getting to work alongside my two project leads Cheryl Mitchel and Dr. Brakeley. They are both such strong and inspiring women who have had such a huge impact on the community in the years they have dedicated themselves to working here. I was so inspired and motivated by their stories and felt privileged to get to meet them. Getting to work on such a hands-on project has made me feel much more connected to Addison County. The course made me realize how much cool and impactful work could be done right here in Addison County, and pushed me to get more involved with the clubs I am a member of.