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Community-Based Learning Builds Advocates, Activists

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Chante Harris participates in community-based learning at AU.

Activist Roots

As a child, Chante Harris’ family stories often dealt with marches, fire hoses, and police dogs. That’s because she comes from a long line of activists: her grandmother, mother, and aunt were all engaged in the Civil Rights Movement and the later struggles against inequality in Newark, N.J.

The family stories put Harris, now an AU senior, on a path toward service at American University, as she recalled thinking early on, “I need to be like that. I need to make a difference in peoples’ lives.”

Today, Harris has specifically taken full advantage of AU’s community-based learning options—a program that engages students with the surrounding Washington, D.C., community. She’s volunteered across the city from local charter schools to literacy programs, getting to know the many issues facing residents.

Community Classroom

While AU holds a reputation for internships and solid academics, School of International Service professor Easten Law believes that community-based learning combines all of the above. “Often [service] almost conflicts with class responsibilities,” he said. “Students have to make choices between all these great resources in D.C. and their papers. What service-learning tries to do is integrate both into the class space.”

Meg Rego coordinates AU’s community-based learning through the Center for Community Engagement & Service (CCES), where Harris also works the front desk. Under Rego’s guidance, AU courses couple with dozens of local nonprofits, where students do everything from developing PR campaigns to building grant proposals.

“They get to collaborate with a community partner. They get to learn about the organization they’re working with. This has led to internships and job opportunities,” she said. “It lets them get their feet wet, engage with the community, and learn from that experience.”

For some two decades, students have participated in the Community Service-Learning Program, which adds an additional credit to any course that a student combines with a related service project. Starting this semester, however, CCES, Academic Affairs, and the Registrar’s Office rolled out a new course designation, “CB,” that denotes classes approved by a service-learning faculty advisory board.

Professor Law, whose cross-cultural communication course carriers the landmark “CB” designation, sends students to engage with ethnic minority communities at places like the Chinatown Community Center. He sees an immediate intellectual reward in the experiential learning.

“It’s made what they’ve learned more complex,” he said. “They realize that models and theories can look very clean on paper. When you have to deal with cross-cultural difference live, it’s a lot harder.”

For Harris, her time in the community (now as a YWCA mentor) has paved a solid path beyond graduation toward either government or nonprofit work—wherever she can be a strong voice for change.

“A lot of people want to go and represent a community before they’ve actually been engaged in that community and understand what its needs are,” she said. “It’s been great that I’ve been able to learn about a community that I’d either like to represent or advocate for one day.”

Two Missions, Combined

As community-based learning expands at AU to include 18 courses this fall, Rego notes this as fulfilling the university’s strategic plan, which calls for allowing any student the opportunity to take a course with a service component before graduating.

Plus, this semester welcomed the university’s first cohort of 40 undergraduate Community-Based Research Scholars. Participants receive merit scholarships and live together on campus in a living-learning community devoted to service in D.C.

“This is another way in which the university is living out that mission, to educate students and create really excellent citizens,” she explained. “We’re seeing there’s a way we can combine that very closely with supporting our community and acknowledging that our community can also greatly contribute to the education of our students.”

For Harris, as she looks toward possibly law school or the Peace Corps, it’s no surprise that she’s learned from the community both on and off campus. “I knew D.C. was that place, AU was that place, just in terms of being the most politically active campus,” she said. “When I got accepted, I was ecstatic. . . . It’s been amazing. I’ve had so many great opportunities since I came here.”

Still, she believes her work in becoming an advocate the likes of her grandmother or aunt is far from over.

“It’s really inspiring when you hear about your family doing things like that. You want to continue that legacy on,” she said. “American University has definitely helped me do that.”