College seems out of reach for many of the 5,300 Massachusetts children in the foster care system. But Visiting Instructor Shelli DeMarkles’ students helped 28 foster kids from Lowell picture life on campus through their service-learning project.
Students in DeMarkles’ honors college writing classes organized and staffed Sibling Sunday on campus through Sibling Connections. Directed by by Kelley Lane '07, the organization helps siblings stay in touch while in the foster system, where many are split up and sent to different homes. DeMarkles knew Lane’s organization would be a good fit for her new service-learning class.
Courses with a service-learning designation require students to participate in an organized service activity to meet a community need. Students also reflect on their experience by connecting the project to the course, broadening their understanding of the real-world topic and building civic responsibility.
DeMarkles incorporated readings and assignments about foster care into the classes and invited alumni who were foster children to speak with the students. Students spent time planning activities and reflecting on the process throughout the semester.
“I wanted to help my students see the worth of service-learning by working with kids living the lives they were reading and writing about,” says DeMarkles. “Our goal was to get the kids in Sibling Connection thinking about college life, which I really think we did.”
Lane says the event was a success.
“It was great to hear the youths say, ‘I want to go to college,’” says Lane, who credits the support she experienced as a sociology student with much of her success. “Education was my way out of chaos and instability. I hope that many of our participants were able to see that college isn't a big scary place. They can do this.”
Students played soccer, made crafts and led a music class for the visiting kids. DeMarkles encouraged her students to use their own values and interests in designing activities.
Shannon Nugent, a music education major, says the service-learning aspect of DeMarkles’ class was valuable for her.
“They were so enthusiastic yet nervous at first, but everyone had a blast by the end of our drum circle activity. We wanted to play patterns they’d follow but they just wanted to their own thing so we adapted, an important part of teaching,” says Nugent. “I loved the whole process and opportunity to apply service to music education.”
Students shared their reactions to Sibling Sunday in essays, bringing the project back to the traditional college writing classroom. Some wrote of learning more about issues facing foster kids, or the challenges in programming activities for a wide range of people. Mercedes Dunham didn’t anticipate her own reaction.
“I could actually see myself being a foster parent,” says Mercedes, a philosophy and psychology major. “I wasn’t interested in the idea before the project, but learned that I could make a difference. This class made me want to build a life that will allow me to provide support for these kids.”