Photo of REAL Girls mentor Jhoana Dela Cruz (top center) participates in one of the activities during the two-day empowerment program
Reaching for Service

Jhoana Dela Cruz knows exactly what she’ll do when she graduates from CSU, Chico, thanks to a recent Health Education Techniques class. Working in task-focused teams, she and her classmates assessed health education needs at Chico’s Four Winds charter school, a K–12 Native American program of the Butte County Office of Education. They then designed a two-day empowerment program for teen and pre-teen girls—REAL Girls, or Reaching for Excellence in All of Life.

“This program planning was very rewarding, an experience I will never forget,” says Dela Cruz. “I realized that working with people is what I really enjoy. This is the career I want to pursue.”

Classmate Lucia Gaona shares this enthusiasm. “The program was amazing,” she says. “The activities were well planned. Every single element of the program brought us together.”

Health and Community Services (HCSV) professor Michael Mann credits his students with the service-learning project’s success. “They did it all,” he says. “This project was theirs, and they did an exceptional job. I’ve never seen a group work harder.”

The mission of REAL Girls was to promote healthy behavior among teenage and pre-teen girls “by encouraging them to respect their strengths, value themselves, protect their futures, and support each other as they live healthy and successful lives.” Programs like REAL Girls have brought CSU, Chico national recognition for community service, such as being named one of 10 finalists for the President’s Higher Education Community Service Award in 2006.

REAL Girls’ first day at Four Winds was dedicated to activities that created comfortable connections among the girls, including team relay races and weaving together the “human knot.” Girls also painted wooden butterfly totems—each design including a girl’s name, a key personal quality, and her ambitions—because, as Mann explains, in Native American cosmology, butterflies represent “moving to a higher level.”

On the program’s final day, Mann’s students came prepared to discuss and offer advice on topics such as child abuse, date rape, and the family impacts of alcoholism. “They all got real with each other, which was the whole point,” Mann says. “I cannot say how impressed I am with the students at Chico State and the quality of work they do.”

Mary Portis, a professor at CSU, Chico and director of two service-learning projects—Leaders for a Lifetime, a program for Hmong youth, and the Buena Salud (“Good Health”) program for children of migrant farmworkers—notes that much has been accomplished since HCSV initiated service learning 18 years ago. “Students learn much more, much faster than they do with readings, lectures, and papers alone,” she says.

And it’s also now clear that service-learning projects benefit instructors as much as they do students and society.

Portis notes that most HCSV students ultimately work with underserved populations. “Reading about the barriers, challenges, and problems these groups face helps,” she says, “but seeing and dealing with these issues make it all much more real. Students are always more interested in class material after a service project, very motivated to make a difference.”

Service learning is also an integral part of the University’s mission as outlined in its Strategic Plan. Many departments offer service-learning opportunities, and faculty, such as associate professor of education Lynne Bercaw, invariably find it a particularly effective teaching tool.

Bercaw uses service learning projects to help future teachers connect with their students. She has her students write special books for individual schoolchildren. She believes that if teachers can learn to be sensitive to each student, they will realize that all people have needs that impact their learning.

Bercaw also studies how service learning affects the teacher candidates and the people they work with. For her work, she was appointed a Carnegie Faculty Fellow for Service Learning.

CSU, Chico, students are often encouraged through their classes to participate in a variety of special community service projects, such as the Fun Without Alcohol Fair, Bidwell Park Clean-Up Day, or the Campus Blood Drive. The Associated Students also offers students a variety of opportunities to engage with the community, including the Community Legal Information Center (CLIC), the Environmental Action and Resource Center (EARC), and Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE).

In December 2006, CSU, Chico received the new Community Engagement Classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University was among 76 U.S. institutions to be chosen for widespread involvement in the community through partnerships, community service, and other activities, as well as for making community engagement an integral part of campus culture. The following month, the University created the new position of director of civic engagement, one of the first such positions in the CSU system, and Deanna Berg (BA, Liberal Studies, ’95), former CAVE program manager, was appointed to lead the campus’s efforts in this area.

“By incorporating service learning as a core value in the curriculum, we are modeling for our students the behavior expected of them throughout their lives,” says Portis.

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