Friday, January 20, 2012

Manila: international service learning bridges students, community

In Manila, the capital of the Philippines, thousands of residents living in unsafe conditions were relocated by the government to the outskirts of the city. After the move, residents experienced lack of employment and education, among other challenges. For the third year, a group of DePaul graduate students and faculty members entered this situation through an innovative service-learning program led by Professor Marco Tavanti in the School of Public Service (SPS). Through the Manila program, DePaul collaborates with Adamson University, a Catholic, Vincentian and urban university in Manila. “What students get in this program is training in participatory poverty assessment,” says Tavanti. “But it’s not just about learning—it’s about public service.

We follow the needs of people in the community, not our own needs.”

Through a process of appreciative inquiry, students focus more on the capacity rather than the needs of this community. And, Tavanti says, service learners from DePaul become “agents for the promotion of capacity- building.” “Our culture has a certain history of colonization,” adds Liezl Alcantra, a student in the class who also worked to create survey evaluation tools through the Manila program. Alcantara’s parents are originally from the Phillipines and, as a Ph.D. student in community psychology, she tapped into SPS’s international offerings to enrich her academic understanding of the challenges of international community engagement. “We were cognizant of our role. But while we were working with potentially vulnerable people, we also learned they have many assets.”

Antonio Merino, who is pursuing a master’s in international public service at DePaul, was struck by how the program offered him the chance to develop hands-on skills. “We were able to talk to the community, conduct focus groups and help develop an assessment tool for Adamson University to use as it evaluated the program,” he says. While Merino points out the benefits of learning and applying research tools through the program, he also emphasizes positive memories of interacting with residents of the community. “One of the highlights,” he says, “was simply going to the house of a community member. When we went to the home of a particular family, they did their best to make us feel at home. They cooked for us, and we talked to family members and neighbors. You have discussions with people and you feel you have a better understanding of how communities operate.”

Renee Partida, who participated in the program and graduated from SPS in June 2010, says the experience gave her an up-close view of issues people faced. “We saw garbage at the relocation site and learned from residents that it was being picked up every four months. Piles and piles of it–stored near a clean water supply,” says Partida, who works as a nurse in the trauma unit at Cook County Hospital. “The politicians denied it, but then said they should contain it better.”

Tavanti speaks about how the experience allows participants to connect with a community. “This work is really an example of international service learning,” he says. “But we work not only as visitor. We are also part of a collaboration.”

[Article published in the Steans Center 2011 annual report]