Betsy Alden Award Winner Frances Beroset Reflects on Service-Learning

Monday, May 6, 2019
By Frances Beroset
frances beroset

I have spent my entire Duke career with a large part of my intellectual and ethical home in the service-learning department. When I arrived at Duke, I planned on becoming a social worker because I knew that I loved people, and that I wanted to be someone who helped people deal with problems in their lives, but I hadn’t had many chances to do that.

I began my service-learning career my very first semester at Duke, almost by accident, when I joined the Knowledge in Service of Society FOCUS cluster. In that first year in Durham, visiting George Watts Elementary as a part of my service-learning course with Dr. Malone was one of the first ways I felt connected to where I was living. Every Tuesday and Thursday I would walk two blocks off campus to work with a fourth-grade boy named Giovanni on his math and on an academic project he selected (producing an educational video about volcanoes and the earth). Through that course, I was introduced to a new form of teaching: a model that combined readings and class discussions with attempting to put what we learning into practice by working with real kids in real schools, and then reflecting on that practice. It was one thing to understand intellectually that children of color are disadvantaged in a number of ways by the structures and systems we build and participate in, and another to see it happen with our service-learning “buddies” in the community where we live and vote. Service-learning quickly became an important way for me to reflect on questions of social justice, human relationships, capital, and empathy that have occupied most of my thinking over the past four years.

To me the most important benefit of the service-learning courses I’ve been a part of is giving students an opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Here at Duke, the world seems to center around us and our experiences, so taking a backseat and moving at someone else’s pace is an important exercise even for students who may never participate in a service-learning class again. To sit with another person and truly attempt to understand their experience and support them is not something we’re asked to do very often, and it’s why I’ve stayed involved in service-learning. It’s been an honor to get to be a part of the program in the way that I have.

In my second year at Duke, I took on a new role as a service-learning assistant for Dr. Gheith’s class on medical ethics and end-of-life care, a course I was in as a student before it was taught as a service-learning course. It became part of my responsibility to give students the sense of place and positionality they needed to reflect on their work in the course. Like myself and my classmates in Dr. Malone’s class the year before, I knew that for many students our class would be the first time they would be asked to think about the preconceptions they had about people who live in Durham, about the populations we were working with, and about their own identity in relation to people different from them. Service-learning was for most students their first opportunity to form meaningful relationships with people outside the structure of the university. In helping students reflect as a class and individually on their work with mostly older people in nursing homes, a few themes came up consistently.

The first was that students needed help understanding the historical context of the state, the city, and of the systems we were working in. One of my early “aha!” moments was realizing that students who didn’t grow up in the South likely wouldn’t think to call older people, particularly people of color, “Ms.”, “Mr.”, “sir” and “ma’am,” as a sign of respect. Another was that it was difficult to imagine ourselves becoming someone who loses their autonomy as they get older: students found themselves hitting what felt like an “empathy wall” that we tried to find ways to get over. A third theme was that, just like in schools, people in nursing homes get varying levels of care and enrichment based on their income and their race. In working as the SLA for that course again my junior and senior year, I had the opportunity to learn from the students, our community partners, and Dr. Gheith about how to answer these ethical questions.

My last service-learning experience is working as the SLA for Dr. Malone’s new course on the structure and purposes of higher education called Why Are We Here?, which meets in the same room where my first service-learning class met. It’s been fascinating to watch students consider what their responsibility is to their classmates, and what the university’s responsibility is to them. Through their service-learning placements with organizations on campus, they’re also beginning to learn how the university works and how it differently serves people of different communities, both inside and outside our classroom.