Sociology Class Teaches Students how to Help Their Community
Thursday, Jul. 05, 2012
In a capstone sociology class, USU student KC Santistevan worked with the Cache County Sheriff's Office coordinating a gardening project with inmates at the Cache County jail.
Professor Steven Daniels is a community development specialist. He created the senior capstone class Applied Community Development to show students how to get involved in their communities.
Five years ago, Steven Daniels began cold calling area nonprofits and government agencies to see how students could make a difference in their organizations. The course Applied Community Development emerged from this effort.
Daniels, a professor of sociology specializing in community and natural resource management, created the class in response to exit surveys from students who wanted more experience working in the field. The course is a senior capstone class for sociology majors at Utah State University where students devise and implement service learning projects for area organizations and community agencies.
“They do just amazing things on behalf of the community,” Daniels said. “I give them the tools to get them started, but I want them out there making a difference.”
He conducts aptitude and interest surveys to determine what students want to get involved with and the best way they can. He tries to help match students and agencies based on their interests, skillsets and needs. In the past, students have worked on projects for returning veterans and in local schools.
“The biggest challenge for me is having a placement that builds upon skills students have and a career trajectory they want to take,” Daniels said.
For instance, this past spring students partnered with local groups such as Common Ground, a nonprofit that provides outdoor adventures for disabled persons, and Bridgerland Literacy, a group aimed at improving literacy in Cache Valley. Students worked with staff to recruit volunteers, fundraise and streamline information systems.
Some students enroll in Applied Community Development feeling they don’t have much to contribute — not really knowing how they can. Many leave feeling empowered. Others take the class and realize they don’t want to pursue the careers they thought they wanted. And Daniels sees that as good progress as well.
“Learning that something is not a good fit is a good outcome too,” he said. “Students learn an awful lot about themselves in this class. I’d rather them learn it in my class than in their first job.”
The underlying message of his class is simple: get involved.
“Whatever your career becomes, there is a place for you to plug into your community,” he tells his classes. “You have the skills and abilities that organizations in your community can use. Wherever you end up, your community can use your skills. Don’t be intimidated, you have skills to offer.”
The first day Neiufi Iongi went to Bridgerland Literacy he was a little nervous.
“I didn’t know quite what to expect,” he said.
After meeting with the volunteer coordinator, she assigned him to help convert tutor trainings to an online format. Training volunteers soaked up a lot of staff time that could have been spent writing grants or fundraising. Iongi worked with another volunteer, Rafael Gutierrez, to build an online training program from scratch.
“I [had]previous computer experience, but my computer design skills really developed during this class with the help of Rafael who has been the driving force behind the project,” Iongi said.
“The last day was surreal because you put so much time and effort into the project and working with the organization. I learned so much in my time between the start and finish.”
The experience was a firsthand introduction to the literacy problem in the county, where about nine percent of the population is considered functionally illiterate. He encountered individuals who tried to hide the fact that they couldn’t read — often to a detriment to themselves.
“I saw powerful examples of the difference literacy organizations can make on individual lives,” Iongi said. “Daily things that we take for granted like reading a bill or reading things on the Internet are huge accomplishments for these people. These problems can be overcome but it takes the dedication and love of individuals like [Bridgerland staff] and the tutors.”
The experience has affected his career goals. Iongi aims to find a job in community relations and development now largely because of Daniels’ class, he said.
“I believe I will remember this class in 10 years because this is my first experience in seeing where my education and training were put to work,” he said. “This class helped me to see what I can do and be.”
KC Santistevan thought he was going to work with local middle school students through the USU’s Cooperative Extension horticulture program for his service learning project. However, plans shifted and he found himself at the Cache County Jail working with inmates in local greenhouses through a partnership between the Cache County Sheriff’s Office and university’s Extension office.
“It was a change to go from expecting to work with kids to working with inmates, but it was really nice because it was a population who really wanted to participate,” Santistevan said. “They had worked hard for the opportunity to be in there, were determined not to mess it up, and were exited to help. I absolutely loved working with all of the workers that I was able to there at the jail.”
Santistevan’s job was to help the inmates raise a crop for use in the kitchen as well as for sale. He oversaw the work crew and joined them in the field. He taught them general gardening lessons such as the advantages of raised beds, pest and weed mitigation and about fertilizers, pesticides and watering.
“I think the inmates were able to gain a great deal from this program, and that is why this type of program is so widely used within the prison system nationwide,” he said. “Many of these inmates have never done anything like this … and being able to see something grow by your own effort and care is something incredible to many of them.”
The inmates must show extended periods of good behavior to be considered for the program where gardening tools could potentially be used dangerously or recklessly. To have the opportunity to be trusted and responsible is very meaningful and uplifting to some inmates, Santistevan said.
“The time it takes these plants to grow is the perfect mix between patience and results that stretches some of these inmates to grow, yet gives them the rewards and satisfaction they need to not become discouraged and to become excited about what they are doing,” he said.
Santistevan will enter USU’s masters of social work program in the fall  and aims to do more activities like this in the future. He believes the hands-on aspect of the experience allowed him to truly assess the program and understand what would it takes to coordinate a successful program in that type of setting.
“I doubt that I will remember many specifics from this class, but the base knowledge and experience that it has given me will help to shape the foundation of how I behave, interact, think, pursue and know about these institutions and people and guide how I handle many more [similar] instances … throughout my career,” Santistevan said.
Writer: Kristen Munson, (435) 797-0297, Kristen.firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact: Steve Daniels, email@example.com