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Zoom and window visits: Service-learning courses adapt to the pandemic

Sophomore Lana Gesinsky could hear the kids before she saw them. On Thursday evenings, she and her classmates would gather in a Kenan Institute of Ethics classroom, donning Kenan gear and excitedly whispering among themselves.

At 6:30 p.m., the young kids would burst through the door, giving their Duke student tutors enormous hugs as another service-learning tutoring session of the Refugees, Rights, and Resettlement course took place. For two hours, the pairs of college students and elementary school student would draw, chat, learn and read. Their time together always went too fast. 

But those hugs and that time physically together has halted. Service-learning classes in which students interact directly with community members have changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, even through a screen, the courses continue to connect Duke and Durham. 

“I thought it was possible that the service aspect would tank with the class going online this fall,” said Deborah Gold, professor emeritus in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who teaches the Death and Dying service-learning course. “But the class just continued to improve all semester… Everyone involved got something significant out of the experience.” 

According to the Duke Service-Learning website, Duke offered 106 service-learning or community-engaged courses during the 2019-20 academic year. More than 1,500 undergraduates took the courses.

When service-learning courses were first offered in 1997, Duke was “very interested in building bridges with the community,” said William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin distinguished professor emeritus of history, who at the time was of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. “We wanted to combine the academic perspective with service, and give students a sense of being a part of a larger community.” 

David Malone, professor of the practice of education and faculty director of Duke Service-Learning, said that the courses “can deepen students’ understanding and strengthen civic responsibility.”

Gold, who began teaching at Duke in 1987, uses service learning in all of her classes. She estimates that she has taught 60 service-learning courses in her time at the University.  

The Death and Dying course, which she created in 2001 after identifying America as the most “death-phobic” society in the world, is a student favorite. 

“[Creating the course] was one of the better decisions of my life,” said Gold, who felt Duke was sending too many students to medical school without preparing these students for death they would likely face on the job. 

The class pairs students with elderly citizens who are in the process of dying. The elderly residents may be in local hospice care, the local Veterans Affairs hospital, the Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, or five to six other sites in the area. Students meet with their elderly “partner” for 20 hours over the course of the semester.

Those 20 hours would typically pass in bedside visits or communal living areas, but this past fall, students met with their partners over Zoom or FaceTime. When weather permitted, students ditched their computers to speak with their partner through a window.

In the visits, residents remained in their rooms while students stood outside, safely distanced from the opened window, Gold said. 

“These types of visits are great because they give the resident a three-dimensional person to see and interact with,” Gold said.  

Virtual service brought on a new onslaught of challenges for Gold’s course. Since students were responsible for initiating sessions and planning conversation topics, Gold sensed that it became harder for students to connect and talk about serious topics like death and dying over a computer screen, she said.

Despite these challenges, the interaction with Duke students was vital for the elderly residents.

“In nursing homes, the residents were kept in their bedrooms and could not see each other,” Gold said. “The time they spent with these students was invaluable.”

Sophomore Crista Vroman, who took the course, agreed. She said she “could clearly see we were making [our partners’] days better.” Although she had no pre-pandemic experience with service, Vroman felt the class changed her.

“As a pre-med student, I need to be able to address the dying process and feel comfortable with it. I can’t be completely emotionless, but it is also important to understand that death happens to everyone,” she said. 

Vroman recalled one particularly moving conversation with a resident in the Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. He had been one of the first African American students to graduate from Duke, Vroman said. He told her about the challenges he faced during his time at Duke and the change he fought for on campus.

“Every student who met with him wanted to share with the class what they had learned from the conversation,” Vroman said. Vroman plans to continue her service next semester through Adopt a Grandparent, a Duke club that fosters relationships between Duke students and Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center residents.

A difficult transition

The Refugee, Rights, and Resettlement service-learning course, taught by Suzanne Shanahan, associate research professor in the department of sociology, also adapted to the pandemic.

Typically, the FOCUS course pairs first-year Duke students with young kids, teenagers or adult mothers who are refugees recently resettled in the Durham area. The duos work together during a two-hour tutoring session on campus. 

In the fall of 2019, sophomore Alanna Miller was paired with a 20-year old refugee woman through Kenan’s SuWA program as part of the course. 

Each week Miller’s SuWA sessions had a different theme—such as health and wellness or computer skills—chosen by student directors. In the first half of the sessions, Duke students worked with their community partner one on one. Often, this individual time was dedicated to improving their English skills. 

The second half of the sessions were devoted to group activities centered around that week’s theme. Example activities included group Zumba lessons, tea tasting with CommuniTEA or learning to knit with the Duke knitting club. 

“It was during these group activities that I felt a bond forming with the whole group,” Miller said. “I left each Thursday night session in such a great mood.” 

Pre-pandemic, many Duke students were invited to visit their partner’s house throughout the semester. 

Last year, Miller visited her community partner’s house with two Duke students who were paired with other members of her partner’s family. When the three of them arrived at the house, the family greeted them with warm welcomes. The group spent hours talking, eating snacks and drinking tea.

Reflecting on the visit, Miller felt it brought her closer to her community partner. “I got to know her whole family better, in a more casual and intimate environment,” she said.

Many Duke students continue tutoring their refugee partner even after the fall FOCUS course is over. 

“It was rewarding to get out of the Duke bubble for a few hours every week,” said Gesinsky, who continued to tutor younger children with Kenan’s Launch Lab after her FOCUS course.

However, the pandemic changed the tutoring sessions, Gesinsky said. She said the new virtual format posed difficulties for new first-years attempting to foster strong relationships with their matched students. Because Gesinsky had already connected with her partner the year before, the move online wasn’t an issue for her, she said.  

“I had already forged a lasting relationship with my partner,” she added. 

Sophomore Steven Powell, a former Refugees, Rights, and Resettlement student who also continued to tutor after taking the course, had similar sentiments about the transition to online tutoring. 

“It was definitely a difficult transition, as the kids had already been online for classes for an entire day of school before meeting with us. Yet I believe Launch Lab was still a beneficial experience for me and my mentee—just having the time to check in and give the kids direct attention was still helpful,” he said.

Because Refugees, Rights, and Resettlement class is part of the first-year FOCUS program, it is only offered in the fall. However, the service aspect typically continues year-round. While tutoring took place virtually this fall, plans for the spring are being announced soon, Gesinsky explained.

Death and Dying will continue next semester in its online format, but with adaptations based on outgoing student input, Gold said. One such change includes increasing the number of window visits, which Gold said both students and residents greatly enjoyed. Gold hopes the number of service-learning courses increases too. 

“I wish more faculty would utilize service learning,” she said. “There are courses that would be magnificent with an aspect of volunteerism. I hope that when the pandemic is over, professors will really consider making this addition to their class.”


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