Back to Dec. 2019 Newsletter

“It Looks Way Different in Real Life”

By Meredith Stoops

“Day One was a roller coaster,” recounted Benedictine College senior, Kylie Mulholland, as she reflected upon the beginning of her service-learning placement at Leavenworth Interfaith Community of Hope’s Welcome Central. “I remember the first person I worked with… was having a ton of withdrawal symptoms from an addiction,” she continued. “We had to get her application for KanCare in. I had never heard of KanCare. They just give me this application and they’re like ‘Fill it out with her,’ but she couldn’t write because her symptoms were so bad.” Mulholland’s “baptism by fire” introduction is par for the course for students enrolled in Psychology Service Experience, a class offered every fall which requires students to commit to 3-5 hours a week at a human services agency for a semester. Right from the beginning they are thrown into tasks that, while appropriate for their training, certainly put them outside of their comfort zone. Dr. Amy Posey, Professor and Chair of Psychological Sciences at Benedictine and also instructor of the course, sees this often-overwhelming immersion as one of the major benefits of the course: “Many of our students have life experiences that have been… characterized by quite a bit of privilege,” she commented. “They’ve been comfortable and their lives have been very predictable and they’ve been safe.” Posey affirmed that this is a good thing, but also recognized that “it’s very good for all of us to get a glimpse into the lives of those whose experiences have been quite different from our own.” This type of encounter, said Posey, “ends up being the primary source of growth for students in the class.”  

Lynda Edson, who receives one to two students every fall at her company, Lynda M. Edson Employment & Counseling, echoed Posey’s comments: “Students have come back to me and said, ‘I had no idea some of the challenges that people face.’” Their comments are not primarily in reference to having a disability, which is the case for a number of Edson’s clients; rather, even when students are aware of these difficulties, Edson said that they are often unaware of other factors that might negatively influence a client such as an unhelpful home environment, “lack of encouragement,” or “not knowing how to set a goal.” Through their time in the community, then, students come to appreciate that a quick evaluation of a situation rarely reveals its true complexity. For example, Mulholland was surprised by the large number of people who did not have IDs or birth certificates and the way it impacts their lives: “That’s why people don’t do things sometimes,” she observed, “they’re kind of paralyzed.” In addition to delaying their access to services, this can reinforce misunderstandings in the community: “Maybe people label them as lazy… “but they’ve applied for a birth certificate and it takes a month and a half to get in.”

Reactions to these multi-layered problems differ from Raven to Raven and change within each student as the semester unfolds. For example, Edson has been struck by her service-learners’ “overall motivation, creativity, and willingness,” in front of these eye-opening discoveries. At the same time, the students can find it daunting to see their own weaknesses and limits more sharply. After reading academic journal articles about the high rate of burn out among human services professionals, most students can now speak to the topic from first-hand knowledge: “I knew it would be really difficult,” Mulholland said, “but it’s hard to the point [where] I really have to motivate myself to go there... and I only go once a week.”

These moments of personal learning are accompanied by deepening academic understanding too. As in Mulholland’s case, the time at the community partner can highlight the difference between reading about something and observing or experiencing it yourself.  “It looks way different in real life than it does in a book,” students will tell Posey. In other instances, her students share the ways in which previous learning was reinforced by what happened at the community partner. For example, students who are working with young children and who have also taken a course in Development Psychology will highlight their mutual applicability. “They talk about that. They bring it up in their reflections,” Posey said, adding that these students often describe something that happened at their service site and then comment, “’We knew that that was going to happen because we’ve learned about that in our classes.’” In order to strengthen these connections, Posey assigns a series of academic articles and literature reviews for the students to read. Each time, after answering some initial questions about the material itself, students are asked to apply the content to their experience at the service site. Mulholland has appreciated these assignments: “It’s been really helpful to keep thinking about… what’s happening and how I can get better.”

In the end, the course readings, the reflections and in-class discussions, and the lived experiences at the community partner combine to create a powerful educational opportunity for the students and a very welcome support to human services in the Atchison area.