Engaging students

Engaging students

At Emory, learning doesn't stay in the classroom. From volunteering to farming, creating to leading, Emory students are expanding their lessons in unexpected places.

Before Jake Krakovsky even graduated from college, he had one of those rare openings where years of work culminated in one special moment. It came as the play he wrote about the Holocaust premiered at Emory, while his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, watched him perform.

The theater studies major had honed his honors thesis into a comedy, based on Jewish folklore, about catastrophic tragedy. He hoped humor could help his generation grapple with the history it had inherited. Krakovsky's one-man show is now slated for performance at Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center in 2015.

"Theater invites you to empathize and open yourself up to something different than yourself," the 2014 alumnus says. "If we want to make the world a better place, empathy is about the best place to start."

Krakovsky is starting his career with a clear understanding of how and why his work makes a difference. His experience touches on just a few of the many opportunities for engaged learning at Emory, which increasingly is combining co-curricular learning with academic coursework. Krakovsky wrote his play during a fellowship with the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry. He studied theater in Italy for a semester, and he received two arts-related internships with the Ethics and Servant Leadership (EASL) program, which combines service hours and classroom instruction.

With support from the 2005-2015 strategic plan, Where Courageous Inquiry Leads, Emory has approached engaged learning with intention and focus to -- in the plan's wording -- create "socially conscious leaders with a portfolio of skills proven and values tested in community involvement." Ten years later, it's doing just that. Edward Queen, EASL's program director, says more students report choosing Emory because of its emphasis on community engagement. "Co-curricular learning is not ancillary," he says.

Emory's new Global Strategies plan promotes opportunities for students to engage in local community activities alongside those for global internships, volunteering, and research. Likewise it seeks to integrate and immerse international students into residential learning programming on campus. Engagement also is integral to Campus Life's strategic plan, currently under development, which describes "learning communities that invite and encourage awareness of the complexity and diversity of our local and global communities."

Now Emory is taking the next step of integrating its academic and campus life aspects more closely. "What we're trying to do is to create an intellectualized living experience," says Simon Blakey, Emory's first director of academic engagement. The chemistry professor's leading efforts to develop a structure that provides "an almost seamless transition between classroom and residence life at Emory."

Live and learn here

The university's commitment to a liberal education is a key factor in the plan's scope and in recognition of the value of a residential experience.

Emory has significantly enhanced on-campus housing options since 2005, culminating in completion of the Freshman Neighborhood with the opening of Raoul Hall this fall. That's provided a foundation, Blakey and others say, to strengthen connections between the academic and residential aspects of the undergraduate experience. In doing so, Emory is drawing on faculty interests in expanding lessons beyond the traditional classroom and on the college's location among seven graduate and professional schools.

Capitalizing on these strengths, Emory is developing more on-campus initiatives alongside off-campus programs, says Michael Elliott, executive associate dean at Emory College of Arts and Sciences. Elliott co-chaired a task force on academic engagement in residential education that examined best practices in the field. "The goal is to create structures and opportunities for chance intersections and serendipity between faculty and students," he says.

"Learning is all-encompassing," says Frank Gaertner, director of programming and learning initiatives with Residence Life. He says faculty and staff lead by example in the residential settings, and this encourages students to tackle life-related questions such as, "How do you live your life as an engaged intellectual with everything else going on in your world?"

Blakey and his residence life colleagues intend to build on existing programs and encourage ideas that bubble up from individual interest. For starters, he is connecting the half-dozen living-learning communities in first-year residence halls with faculty members who are teaching first-year seminars.

These seminars are required classes and integral to a quality enhancement plan (QEP), The Nature of Evidence, that was developed as part of the process for Emory's reaffirmation of accreditation and is being implemented on campus by sociologist Tracy Scott. The purpose of the QEP is to make an encounter with evidence a vital part of every student's education. In learning how to identify different forms of evidence, first-year students will see how different disciplines approach research. Having early exposure to these concepts is meant to create a foundation for subsequent research and honors projects.

The aim: "Turn what is happening in isolated pockets into a seamless integrated program all over campus," says Blakey. By that, he means the kind of unstructured time that he and students shared during a study abroad program. "The relaxed conversations we were able to have were equally important to the ones we had in the classroom."

An MBA student is on point at Raoul Hall for conversations about social entrepreneurship, the newest living-learning community theme. Rajiv Ramakrishnan, an inaugural resident graduate fellow, brings experience with student projects at the World Bank and as a mentor for young entrepreneurs. First-year students started coming to him with ideas in the first days of classes this fall.

"They are inspired and trying to figure out how to make an impact immediately," says Raoul Hall Complex Director Ambra Yarbrough. In the freshman biology class of Rachelle Spell, two students developed a low-cost method to detect Ebola infection for an extra credit opportunity this fall. With Ramakrishnan's help, they promptly set up a crowd-funding site to raise money for a prototype.

Food for thought

The concept of engaged learning can't get more hands-on than the planting, weeding, and harvesting underway at Oxford College's organic farm, developed as a kind of greenhouse for the university's strategic goals of engaged learning and sustainability. Nearly two dozen Oxford students signed up for the first academic course on the farm, the Sociology of Food, even before its formal opening this fall. The course combines farm work with discussions of social issues such as inequality, culture, and identity.

Organic farming involves more than avoiding techniques of modern agriculture, farmer-educator Daniel Parson tells the students. The field is "not only defined by what we don't do, but also by what we do," Parson says. The topic-based instruction conveys both straightforward and subtle lessons about making planned and proactive choices.

"Farmers today have to be growers, mechanics, business people, salesmen, and marketers. So almost any field of study could be reflected on the farm," Parson says.

Currently in the class, pre-med student Evan Kiely says, "I want to get my hands dirty and learn a skill. Maybe this class will change something in me." Rachel Glasberg, a sophomore studying sociology and film studies, hopes to use the experience to make an impact in the world: "I want to find a problem and broadcast it to a wider audience."

Preparing students for life and work

Keenan Jones says he arrived at Emory College with a lesson from his parents to help others, so he jumped in as a freshman to do just that. He has since led service projects with the Brotherhood of Afrocentric Men, the Black Student Alliance, and Volunteer Emory. Along the way, he focused on developing skills that could help him become a better leader -- collaboration, motivation, and planning.

All the lessons came together for him during an EASL internship with Atlanta's East Lake Foundation. The foundation works with public and private partners to provide mixed-income housing, cradle-to-college education, and wellness programs. Born at what is now Emory Hospital Midtown, Jones was familiar with the East Lake story: once-fashionable golf courses; neighborhood decline and high crime rates; a comeback and now ongoing rejuvenation. In fact, the foundation currently is partnering with faculty at the Goizueta Business School to encourage economic development in the neighborhood. (See related video.)

Working for the foundation and reflecting on the experience with other students made the East Lake community come to life in a new way for Jones. "The effort to revitalize the area was completely collaborative," he says. "I've never seen something like that."

After graduation, the sociology major hopes to find an opportunity to combine his interests in education, sports, and nonprofits. And he's quick to share credit for his ambition. "My friends push me, just by hanging out and seeing what they're interested in and how smart they are."

In financial terms, the value of these encounters with student peers is intangible. By providing these opportunities, Emory is making a long-term investment in its vision of community members who work collaboratively for positive transformation in the world -- a tenet that runs throughout its strategic plan.

Alumna Rachel Cawkwell had a similar observation about her undergraduate days. "All of these types of experiences interact in a residential setting," she says. "People come together to share ideas in organic way, not just in the structured setting of the classroom. You live with people you're working with and develop a strong sense of community."

At Emory, Cawkwell participated in the Scholarship and Service Summer Program as a Woodruff Scholar and in the Community Building and Social Change fellowship. Today, as a Bobby Jones Scholar at Scotland's University of St. Andrews, Cawkwell believes that getting to team up with a variety of people at school will help her in her future work. "In the workplace, you'll be learning experientially from the people around you," she says. "You won't have a textbook like at college."

Her analysis reflects what Emory's engaged learning initiatives are fostering through the support and vision of the strategic plan. Campus Life Senior Vice President and Dean Ajay Nair sums it up: "We are preparing students for life and work."