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While staying on campus, class experiences “world cultures”

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. –Though most Bethel College January interterm classes stay “on campus,” that doesn’t mean students don’t get a chance to experience the world.

A major goal of Bethel College’s Social Development and Social Justice class is to help students explore how social and community development can empower marginalized people. Several field trips to Wichita allowed students to see this in real time while also experiencing a variety of cultures.

Besides reading about ideas, concepts and theories, “We met with community action groups, community organizers and various community members within the larger city,” explains Whitney Fast, senior social work major from Moundridge. “Our field trips gave us the opportunity to witness, engage and ask questions with persons involved in immigration, neighborhoods and community development, domestic violence and mental health.”

The class, which looks at how social and community development can help achieve social and economic justice, is offered alternate years as a month-long course during January. Ada Schmidt-Tieszen, Bethel professor of social work, has been teaching the course since 2006.

“The really interesting part of this class was that we were able to meet with people who were being treated unjustly and making attempts to challenge the system and create change on a more grassroots level,” says Fast. “This made the concepts we were learning in class more visible and tangible. We were able to see the concept of social justice firsthand.”

Among the places they visited: Breakthrough, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people who live with severe mental illness achieve independence; Catholic Charities, which provides critical services to those in need, including immigration and naturalization assistance; and Interfaith Ministries, an organization that welcomes people of all faiths to work toward common goals such as reducing the number of homeless in Wichita.

The class also visited several communities including Plainview and Hilltop. Amy Llamas, senior social work major from Hutchinson, explains that in these neighborhoods basic needs are barely met. “Here, the housing is inadequate,” she says.

While resources exist for residents in these neighborhoods, “the residents themselves struggle with economic marginality,” explains Schmidt-Tieszen. “Many are also new to the country as immigrants, so [they] are just getting their bearings. The elementary school in Plainview hears 22 different languages spoken by students and their parents.”

Llamas adds that the people in the Hilltop and Plainview communities “work so hard just to survive.” In the Nomar community, a Hispanic neighborhood, the class learned how the City of Wichita “has approved and started developments … that will provide a cleaner, more attractive neighborhood,” says Llamas.

“I learned how much the physical appearance of a neighborhood can change its dynamics,” she continues. “The excitement and pride felt by the community members about the coming changes are truly reflected in conversation with them.”

“One of the most meaningful things for me,” says Fast, “was to see both the need for change and specific action taking place to try and resolve the issues.” Referring to the class’s experiences at Breakthrough, she continues, “The organization emphasized equality between staff and clients and created a welcoming space for this often ostracized population. I was reminded … why I chose social work, and it renewed my passion for social change.”

In addition to visiting organizations and neighborhoods, the students learned about culture by sampling the fare at ethnic restaurants in the communities they visited.

They ate at Tiara’s Place (soul food); El Paisa (Mexican); Zaytun (Middle Eastern); Chiang Mai Thai (Thai); and Saigon Market (Vietnamese). “These lunches provided a great time for students to bond and to have informal conversations about the speakers and sights from the morning’s field trip,” says Schmidt-Tieszen.

“Of all the social work classes I’ve taken,” says Fast, “this is by far one of my favorites. I’m a very visual learner, so going on field trips and interacting with people firsthand was ideal for me.”

In addition to Fast and Llamas, students in the course were Darin Derstein, Ford; Yenikah Fon, Hyattsville, Md.; Reed Hammond, Hesston; Kayla Hiebert, Newton; Kathleen Kendall, Newton; Jean-Yves Komayombi, Garland, Texas; Matthew Krehbiel, Wichita; Joel Maple, Umatilla, Fla.; Daniel Martin, Clay Center; Rhonda Miller, Hesston; Jennifer Rose, Walton; Angela Schmidt, Walton; Megan Schrock, Wellman, Iowa; Stephanie Schroder, Grand Junction, Colo.; Austin Smith, Wichita; and Laura Stevens, McPherson.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges profiled in Colleges of Distinction 2009-10. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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