Patricia Mathu
Mercury Staff

Courses offer opportunities to help local communities, middle school students

UTD is joining the nationally growing trend of service learning in the classroom. This semester, the university is offering 10 classes centered around service.

In 2017, UTD received $1 million through the University of Texas System to incorporate community engagement into the curriculum. Since then, the school has offered a variety of classes, from helping the homeless youth population to supporting students who identify as parents, to reach this goal.

Cynthia Sorto, a program manager at the Office of Diversity and Community Engagement, said the difference between service learning and volunteering lies in who benefits.

“Volunteer work feels very one-way, where you go and service that group,” Sorto said. “Service learning is a two-way relationship. Yes, we are going to support a community and spend time and give back, but there is also a very clear understanding that the community has something they’re giving us.”

Sorto is a facilitator of a class with 10 UTD students that teaches goal setting and positive psychology to high school newcomers, most of whom have lived in the United States for less than a year.

“There are some language barriers,” Sorto said. “But there is also just the cultural and social navigating of coming to a whole new country, being new and just being in high school with all that it entails.”

Aminah Khan, a child development and psychology senior, is taking a service learning class this semester that focuses on building confidence in middle school girls. She said through the class, she saw a distinction between service learning and volunteerism.

“In volunteering, you have someone that laid down the framework for how things are going to be, and you are just filling a role and completing that task,” Khan said. “That contrasts with service learning, where you are learning just as much or more than the people you’re helping.”

Khan said her class allows UTD students to take ownership of their service by designing the pieces of the curriculum they teach their middle school participants. Her favorite so far has been a lesson on beauty standards where participants made collages out of magazines.

“In service learning, you also have more space to create your own interactions and influence the material and curriculum,” Khan said.

Khan has a background in teaching Sunday school but said she found this experience different and learned to be more flexible.

“Service learning, in a sense, is teaching, but we like to see it as facilitating,” Khan said. “Especially since it is after school, we don’t want anything too structured.”

Khan said in lieu of the traditional rigidity of classrooms, UTD students bring snacks and have involved discussions.

Sorto said her favorite part of service learning classes is seeing students realize their full potential and grow over the course of the semester. Sorto said she hopes the university will institutionalize service learning across all majors.

“It is sometimes hard to give and share as an undergraduate,” Sorto said. “You think, ‘One day when I graduate, I’ll be the expert or I’ll know more.’ But no — right now, in this moment, you have something to give. This class is all about saying, ‘Let’s go share it with the Richardson community.’”

Although UTD is a part of Richardson, Sorto said the relationship sometimes feels hidden. She spent the first three weeks with her class before going into the community to do service, teaching students about the demographics of Richardson and the high school they were serving.

“I would love for more students to have this opportunity to be able to give back to, but also gain from, the community. I want to find a way to make this a part of UTD,” Sorto said. “I think that speaks to what UTD is trying to build — a culture and a community — and service learning is all a part of that.”