Course Makes Learning a Two-Way Street for Students, Homeless Teens

At 8 a.m. every Tuesday, Dr. Carol Cirulli Lanham’s sociology class meets at a drop-in center for homeless students at South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas.

The group of University of Texas at Dallas students welcomes everyone who comes into the converted classroom at the campus and offers them doughnuts, pastries, fruit cups and milk. Then they talk to the high school students about everything from music to dealing with stress.

The class is one of a growing number of community-engaged learning courses at UT Dallas that give students the opportunity to explore new topics while serving as teachers and mentors. The program is funded through a grant from The University of Texas System.

The high school students receive encouragement and support from the UT Dallas students, while the UT Dallas students gain experience as volunteers and mentors and learn firsthand about youth homelessness.

“I really enjoy talking to the students,” said Sai Nikitha Prattipati, a psychology senior and a McDermott Scholar. “I learn a lot from their experiences.”

“It’s been nice forging a relationship with students. They’re struggling with a lot of the same things I’ve struggled with. After we talk, they realize they’re not the only ones to go through it.”

Ada Turner, a psychology senior at UT Dallas

Lanham, also an assistant dean of outreach and engagement, agrees that the learning goes both ways.

“On the first day of class, we go over the list of marketable skills that UT Dallas students would like to acquire during the course of the semester. It is gratifying to watch my students as they develop their abilities in oral communication, teamwork and more,” she said.

An estimated 3,700 homeless students attend Dallas Independent School District (DISD) campuses, which include South Oak Cliff High. While some of them stay in shelters, others live in motels, abandoned homes or temporarily at a friend’s house. The Dallas nonprofit organization Focus on Teens provides the drop-in center as a resource for homeless students at South Oak Cliff High and several other DISD campuses.

After a recent session at the drop-in center, the high school students headed to their first class of the day by 9 a.m. The UT Dallas students stayed in the room for the second part of their class, which included reflections on that morning’s activities and their readings on youth homelessness. The sociology course is offered through the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences.

Ada Turner, a psychology senior, said she can relate to much of what the high school students are going through because she also has experienced homelessness.

“It’s been nice forging a relationship with students,” she said. “They’re struggling with a lot of the same things I’ve struggled with. After we talk, they realize they’re not the only ones to go through it.”

Derrick Battie, South Oak Cliff High School’s community liaison, said his students look forward to the sessions. The UT Dallas students have worked with the high school students to create vision boards, make stress balls or talk about current events.

“Dr. Lanham and her students have brought value since day one when we came up with this mentoring concept,” Battie said. “Our high school students, when they graduate, want to be either in the workforce or college. What better role models to bring in than college students?”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published by the University of Texas, at Dallas.

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Joe Brooks

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Founder of Community Works Institute (CWI), leader, and advocate for a community focused approach to education.

Community Works Journal: Digital Magazine for Educators

place as the context, service-learning as the strategy, sustainable communities as the goal