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Where Theories Become Realities

Students Put Textbook Lessons Into Practice for Community Benefit

The moment a client stepped into the Alzheimer’s Association of Smith County seeking help for a loved one was when everything clicked for students in Dr. Marsha Matthews’ Public Relations Campaigns class.

The students were developing a PR campaign to help the association with its goals, and after seeing the real people affected by their work, they became more invested in the project.

“When students visit a place of business, everything changes,” said Matthews, associate professor of communication. “If textbooks and cases were all they had, they’d never see that their work matters in a real, tangible way.”

Each year, Matthews chooses a local business or nonprofit with a real need while also providing the students a setting to put theories into practice. Besides gaining hands-on experience, students leave with a portfolio of work to show potential employers.

Matthews’ PR Campaigns course is only one example of the many classes at The University of Texas at Tyler that embrace service-learning activities. While the types of projects differ from discipline to discipline, the concept remains the same—students take their abilities out into the community as both training and service.

“Service learning brings the real world into the class,” said Dr. Scott Marzilli, assistant vice president for academic innovation and student success. “They go out and work in the community to see what the job is like.”

Professional success, rather than just good grades, gave 2015 graduate Anita Brown  confidence she says she wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. She took Matthews’ PR Campaigns class and discovered that she was capable of doing what she had studied so long to do.

Brown and her teammates created a campaign for Therapet, a nonprofit organization focused on the healing and rehabilitation of patients with acute or chronic diseases using animal-assisted therapy.

“I really enjoyed the fact that we were working the entire semester on a project for a real client using real creativity, knowledge and all the other things school prepares us for,” said Brown, who holds a degree in mass communications concentrating in public relations, and is working toward a master’s in communications. “Then we got to experience the client's response, feedback and the actual utilization of what we were preparing. To see the end result in that real-world scenario was a highly satisfying experience.”

Brown loved the project so much that she became Matthews’ teaching assistant for that course. Now, she gets to enjoy watching other students have their "ah-ha'' moments. 

Real Word Impact

Food Bank Pic

As pictured here, the East Texas Food Bank is among local agencies providing service opportunities for  UT Tyler students. In top photo, students assist grade schoolers at the Discovery Science Place Maker Faire.

Students benefit from service learning projects, as do nonprofits and small businesses in the community. Therapet appreciated the experience of working with Matthews’ class so much that its leadership requested to participate as a client again the very next year.

Student teams in Dr. Barbara Wooldridge’s Principles of Marketing class also thrilled their clients by preparing Google AdWords digital advertising campaigns. Susan Dukes, owner of Pottery Café Canvas & Cork Studio, still refers to the students’ report five years later because it was so helpful.

Dukes’ team visited her studio and talked with her in depth about what areas of her website she wanted to promote. After discussing her goals, Dukes left everything in their hands. She even gave them administrator access to her website so they could optimize her keywords for search engines.

“Their initial goal was to get 13,000 impressions, but we got over 150,000 impressions,” said Dukes, who has been in business nearly 10 years. “We’re booked back-to-back every Saturday now.”

Dukes is working toward her own Master of Business Administration, and she took one of Wooldridge’s classes, saying she learned much more than she expected.

Wooldridge, professor of marketing, has been incorporating service learning into her classes since the first semester she ever taught a class, back in 1999. She says students are more engaged in learning and more invested in a project when they're working with a client, rather than simply working for a grade.

“Service projects help students learn about their power to positively impact the world,” Wooldridge said. “It’s a neat relationship that lets learning happen in a very different way.”

Projects in Wooldridge’s classes also hone students’ skills in unexpected areas. In one of her graduate classes, Wooldridge required her students to make her a five-minute presentation on how to give a presentation, before they spoke in front of their clients. She told them the stakes were higher when presenting in front of professionals, rather than a professor.

“I told them, ‘I don’t want you to embarrass yourselves,’” Wooldridge said. “They said, ‘We know how to do a presentation,’ but then realized they didn’t know as much as they thought.”

One of those students, Michala Ashley (2010 BBA, 2011 MBA) realized her skills were good enough for the classroom, but not good enough for reality. With guidance, she saw her skills improve, and afterward, she joined Toastmasters at Wooldridge’s recommendation.

“Dr. Wooldridge really hit the nail on the head with her critique of my communication skills. I was blindly confident in my speaking abilities up to that point,” Ashley said. “It meant a lot to me that Dr. Wooldridge invested her time into developing my abilities throughout the class, and I wanted to prove to her that I was not going to stop just because the final project was complete.”

Different Talents, Common Goals

In some fields, service learning is inextricable from coursework, but many professors at UT Tyler partner with other departments to create multidisciplinary projects.

Christy Gipson, a clinical instructor for the School of Nursing, says service learning has always been part of her students’ coursework, but she’s recently teamed up with collaborators in the College of Education and Psychology and the College of Business and Technology to share their talents.

Joining with education professor Dr. Kouider Mokhtari, Gipson’s students developed educational materials focusing on health literacy for clients at the Tyler Family Circle of Care. While Gipson’s students prepared the information, Mokhtari’s students reviewed the materials to ensure appropriate literacy levels. Another semester, Gipson’s students offered scripted training at the medical clinic to educate parents about fever.

Gipson has also teamed with Dr. Julie Delello, assistant professor of education, and Dr. Rochell McWhorter, assistant professor of human resource development. Their students taught older adults how to use iPads to access health information online. The adults learned how to look up information about illnesses, medications and more.

“Health education is an important part of nursing,” Gipson said. “We’re teaching students to look at the whole patient. Service learning provides the opportunity to practice communication and teach skills to different populations.”

Looking Toward the Future

While service learning has always been part of the culture at UT Tyler, administrators have begun to formalize and publicize these opportunities for future students, said Dr. William Geiger, vice provost and dean of the graduate school.

Faculty members now can denote their classes’ service learning components in the course catalogue after a rigorous review process to ensure they meet the university’s established criteria. Most service learning projects involve at least 20 hours of time outside the classroom working with people and businesses in the community.

Professors find that most students enjoy the opportunity to get a glimpse of their future selves in action.

“Service learning gives you a chance to dive in and get a look at what life is like whenever you leave college,” said Chase Ragland, an adjunct professor and student development specialist for leadership and service. “You’re not just trying to memorize and regurgitate information; you’re actually doing it. It’s an invaluable piece to learning.”

Next: Active Learning in the Fisch College of Pharmacy


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