Back to Dec. 2019 Newsletter

Discovering the Whole Community

By Meredith Stoops and Anna Restuccia

Every semester, Benedictine College offers a “Discovery Seminar,” which engages students in an interdisciplinary investigation into a topic of interest. This Fall, professors Dr. Daphne McConnell (World and Classical Languages and Cultures), Dr. Julie Bowen (English), and Dr. Janet Paper (Biology) teamed up to develop a seminar called Discovering Homelessness in America. "We are not experts [on this topic]” admits McConnell. But, she said, that is not the point: “The model of [the discovery seminar] is that we're exploring a subject that we're curious about” and to do so alongside students.

Professors and students met each week to discuss assigned readings and listens to guest speakers. Each week had a theme, and over the semester, these themes helped them consider the possible causes of and solutions to homelessness in our country. The class did not stay on a purely theoretical level, though; students and faculty also sought to discover the reality of homelessness in day to day life. That meant students needed to get out of the classroom and interact with real people, places, and situations. McConnell saw this as an integral part of the course and of inquiry in general: answering any question, she said, “starts with building relationships and trust.”

To that end, these service-learning Ravens spent time with the poor and homeless in Atchison and beyond. “I’m really glad that Dr. McConnell is investigating the reality of the situation,” shared Rev. Matt Broxterman, Pastor at First Christian Church, which houses the Atchison County Food Pantry. “If we had a better awareness of what the situation actually is, there’d be a lot of people who would be more inclined to help and make a difference.” Broxterman is well-aware of the level of need in the community: the food pantry, which served more than 600 families in 2018 alone, is open three days a week and relies completely on volunteers to operate, according to its informational flyer. Students in Discovering Homelessness worked multiple shifts at the pantry during the semester. Other community partners included Hope Faith Ministries and Uplift in Kansas City and, closer to home, NEK-KAP and the emerging local organization, Bridge Atchison (Building Relationships in Developing Genuine Encounters).

The course’s talks, readings, and personal interactions were moving and thought-provoking for the students. Benedictine junior, Emily Sanderlin, affirmed this: “getting the testimony of someone who is homeless has been very powerful." McConnell, Paper, and Bowen wanted to help students integrate these formative experiences into their lives as a whole. One way they did this was through weekly reflections.  Sanderlin appreciated this element. Speaking about reflections on the assigned texts, she shared, "It has been really good because you don't just read it… and then, you know, blow it off –  you have to sit and think about it."

In the end, according to McConnell, the course boiled down to this: “What we want to do is identify and serve the homeless population in Atchison.” Broxterman saw this as one example of an overall positive trend: “Benedictine really seems like it’s trying to get more involved in the community and I think that’s fantastic.” It is these professors’ hope that their students now see that the “community” to which Broxterman referred means the whole community, whether they have a place to live or not.