The Importance and Potential for Community-Engaged Courses in Times of COVID-19

August 25, 2020
Image created by Elizabeth Cruz-Rodriguez

Alessandra Bazo Vienrich, PhD.
Assistant Professor of Sociology, Worcester State University

Over the last four years I have taught courses in a number of areas, including race and ethnicity, immigration, research methods, and statistics. Through my teaching I have developed a pedagogy of empathy, aiming to instill in students a sense of urgency in how they see the realities and humanity of the disadvantaged groups they study. During this time I was able to identify the disconnect between students’ knowledge on issues like poverty, language access, discrimination, and immigrant legal precarity, and their personal understanding of their own communities. I worked to bridge this gap in my courses by preparing students to be critical interventionists in their communities, and helped them develop the tools they need to make impactful change. These tools ranged from asking students to interview immigrants and refugees about their experiences adapting to life in the U.S., to introducing students to best practices in survey research of minority and immigrant communities. This past academic year, I looked to engaged learning as a platform to both instill in students deep conceptual understandings of the Latinx experience in the U.S. South, and to introduce them to critical community-centered methods for change. As part of the faculty at a small private liberal arts college in North Carolina, where 63% of students are white, and where a third of students come from states in the South, I saw this course as an opportunity to explore topics of relevance to a student body where the largest domestic minority are Latinxs. I initially conceived and designed Sociology 264: Latinxs in the South, in Fall 2019, and had the opportunity to teach it the following semester. The course, centered on working with a North Carolina organization that assists low-income residents in three cities: Davidson, Cornelius, and Huntersville, and focused on the Latinx clients that this organization serves.

While I am new to teaching engaged learning courses, I have studied the Latinx immigrant population in North Carolina for nearly a decade, and have often reflected on how community-centered learning methods could be used to combat dominant media-led misconceptions on Latinx immigration in the Southeast U.S. Latinxs in the South enrolled 21 students in majors ranging from Latin American Studies to Computer Science, and one of the main objectives of this course was to build on an existing resource guide that our partner organization’s volunteers had worked on in previous months. For the first half of the semester students participated in in-class exercises like think-pair-share, and engaged in free writing about contemporary topics like the social and cultural meanings of Hispanic, Latino/a, Latinx, and the intersection of race and legal status in the immigrant experience. Students also worked collaboratively, and visited our partner organization, as they prepared to work on the resource guide. In February 2020 students began practicing digital community outreach methods as they gathered information on local community organizations with the goal of learning if organizations had Spanish-speaking staff members that could potentially offer services to our partner organization’s Spanish-speaking clients. When in mid-March 2020, this course abruptly transitioned to online remote synchronous learning, the resource guide was well underway. Yet, the challenges we faced over the next 8 weeks of the course was an education for both students and myself. In the following paragraphs I describe how the cohort and I turned these challenges into moments of opportunity to make a difference for Latinxs in North Carolina, a group disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Normalizing Uncertainty as Part of the Plan

As students and faculty left campus for the remainder of the semester, the challenges of transitioning to online remote learning became evident. From going back to homes with immuno-deficient family members, to watching parents struggle to make ends meet when their industries shut down, students in Latinxs in the South were facing a multitude of personal and communal difficulties. In navigating this uncertain terrain, I adopted a more conscious advising role that emphasized wholeness and empathy. I incorporated weekly check-ins with students during class time that involved students sharing their personal and academic concerns with their peers and myself. This practice allowed me to address students’ heightened anxieties about our collaborative community partnership project and to brainstorm how we could move forward without losing sight of our commitment to our partner organization. Our check-ins, some which at times took place multiple times per week, allowed students to come to terms with the reality that embracing uncertainty would be part of the course plan. I distributed an updated syllabus where all the changes were outlined, and this variable of uncertainty factored into the second half of our semester plan, played an important role in our ability to carry on with our partner organization’s resource guide.

In this course, the practice of expecting the unknown prepared students to accept the outcomes of our research process, especially when it came to encountering organizations that had closed their doors because of COVID-19. In some cases, students learned to understand that in this time of crisis, many organizations were devoting all of their time and efforts to assisting the communities most affected by the pandemic and could not make time for our inquiries. Throughout this process, they learned to exercise the practice of focusing on aspects of our plan that we could control and look towards moving forward. Embracing and attempting to normalize uncertainty also did two things for students: for those who had never experienced this type of uncertainty, it allowed them to relate to the same Latinx clients served by our partner organization, who also experienced many uncertainties in their daily lives. For those who did have experiences with uncertainty, and who were going through similar difficulties to the ones experienced by our partner organization’s clients, it allowed them to feel validated, and to feel that their experiences were seen and understood by their classmates and professor.

Looking for Guidance in Unprecedented Times

As a recent Ph.D. graduate, my immediate instinct in dealing with the challenges that COVID-19 introduced to this engaged learning course was to look for guidance from trusted mentors and colleagues. While everyone that I reached out to was sympathetic, the reality was that most of those in the academic community were struggling with their own transitions to remote online learning. I quickly realized that despite having a supportive community, guidance on how to proceed with my engaged learning course would be scarce, and unlikely to lead me towards getting it “right”. After a few attempts of seeking guidance, and after identifying exactly what I wanted from people, I realized that what I was after in reaching out to mentors and colleagues, was certainty, clarity, and a plan. All things that were impossible to get from others, and that only I could put into place.

Coming to terms with this realization, led me to implement a mindful response geared at my students’ well being, the well being of the Latinx clients our partner organization served, and my own well being. A key aspect of this process was including my students in the decision-making process. While at many stages, they were active contributors to the resource guide that we were all developing, allowing them to be decision-makers in planning the course of our semester was relatively new to me. Looping students into the course planning allowed me to use them for guidance– yes, my students guided me throughout this process. Because unlike mentors and colleagues who could not give me certainty, clarity, and a plan, my students– the same people who were actively working on this resource guide– could.

Coming to Terms with the Effects of COVID-19 on Resources for Latinx Clients

Perhaps one of the biggest difficulties students and I faced as a class was witnessing how the needs of our partner organization’s clients increased, while our ability to provide resources decreased. The reality was that not all of the health clinics, food pantries, and other community resources typically available to Latinx clients in Mecklenburg county survived the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. For most of these organizations, which were volunteer led, the pandemic meant limited hours, decreased funds, or at worst, closure. While coming to terms with the limitations we were facing, our class knew that the needs of Latinx clients continued to persist, and that now, because of the pandemic, they were amplified. Instead of feeling defeated, we implemented strategies that allowed us to accept the evolving nature of the academic semester and which propelled us to arduously work towards gathering as much valuable information as we could on the community resources that were most needed.

These increased needs of Latinx residents in the area, some of them immigrants, meant that as a class students had to conduct additional research, make more phone calls, and be systematic about email communication with the organizations they reached out to. It also required students to be creative as they tried to make up for organizations that now only offered services during limited hours. One example of this was our inclusion of not only the local Planned Parenthood organization in the resource guide, but also the inclusion of Planned Parenthoods in neighboring towns. Our hope was that this would provide clients with multiple options that would fit in with their limited transportation, work schedules, and a potential increase in need for healthcare services.

While the closures, limited hours, and overall shortage of resources at organizations contacted in the making of the resource guide, at times made students and I wonder if this was all worth it, the fact that our partner organization currently not only uses this guide for their own clients, but has also voiced an interest in sharing it with other organizations in the community, proved that in the end our perseverance as an engaged-learning course could potentially have a wide impact on Latinxs in Mecklenburg county. In a county where 55% of those infected with COVID-19 are Latinxs, and where some Latinxs are undocumented, and as such, not covered by unemployment or pandemic relief schemes, the information on the guide is valuable and likely to be a vital resource for this community. As others consider the feasibility of embarking on an engaged learning course while teaching online, I encourage them to think of the impact their efforts could have on the most vulnerable populations affected by this pandemic.

References

Critchfield, H. (2020, July 21). How Latinos in North Carolina Are Disproportionately Affected by COVID-19. WFAE Radio 90.7

McShane, C. (2020, July 7). Charlotte Region’s Hispanic Population Grows at a Rapid Pace. UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

Alessandra Bazo Vienrich is a Sociologist of immigration, race, and ethnicity. Her research examines Latinx immigrant integration in North Carolina and Massachusetts. In Fall 2020 she will join the Sociology Department at Worcester State University as Assistant Professor. 

 

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