02/27/2014 01:41 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2014

Students Can't Solve Chicago's Homelessness Problem, But They Can Learn to Serve

It's not often that we think of college students as part of a solution to complex social problems, like homelessness. But perhaps it's time we did.

As a communication professor with a health research focus, I spend a portion of my time advocating for the health care needs of disadvantaged populations. And yet each day I've been hurrying past men who are members of the very population my efforts would be aimed at helping. Walking to my office in Chicago's South Loop, I often see five or more homeless African-American men. Always, I offer a quick smile, an overly cheerful "Good morning," and hurry past. And I feel like a hypocrite -- as so many of us do.

But we don't have to. There are ways to make a difference. As an educator, I have a rare and time-limited opportunity to help students understand the complexities of social issues, in a tangible way. Most of my students have no personal experience with the homeless, yet as they make their way to and from class at DePaul's downtown campus, they brush shoulders with the same men I do. Rather than continuing to metaphorically walk by the issue, I've come to see service learning projects as one of the most effective ways students can learn about and advocate for change, up close.

This past quarter, students enrolled in my graduate public relations class and I partnered with Community Counseling Centers of Chicago (C4) to consider how communication can be used to address mental illness stigma. Students walked away with a deeper understanding of mental illness and the difficulties faced by people with mental health problems and their own ability to use communication to serve as change agents.

So why don't we typically think of college students as problem solvers in this way? More commonly, institutions of higher education introduce students to highly theoretical concepts without linking them to the practical knowledge needed to proactively engage with real world problems. Students rarely have the opportunity to experience, reflect, think and act on a particular issue while working alongside organization representatives charged with advocating for a particular community or issue.

During the past two decades, universities across the country have widely embedded service learning into classrooms. But service learning is still not recognized as a fundamental educational experience that helps students navigate the space between adolescent and adult community engagement, in spite of evidence -- hands-on confidence-building experiences, greater empathy for others' life experiences -- that its positive impact in and outside the classroom is profound.

Students of course, are not the only benefactors of such programs. According to a Higher Education Research Institute report, faculty engaged in service learning report a heightened sense of civic responsibility and personal effectiveness, too. Here at DePaul, the Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning, dedicated solely to aiding student, facult, and staff efforts to engage with the city of Chicago, positions the university to serve as a liaison between students and community organizations to foster student civic and political engagement.

To those who may have a hard time imagining it, here's how a service learning project can work: Educators reach out to their campus liaison and ask for help in embedding a homelessness-related service learning project into their class. Shelter representatives visit the classroom, fostering a conversation intended to help students better understand homelessness in general and the specific challenges faced by their client base. In my class, for instance, students engage with them about how we can use communication to do our part to help diminish homelessness in Chicago and beyond.

Through service learning, my students learn the stories of men like Norris Winston, 49, who currently relies on a shelter called A Little Bit of Heaven as his safe, clean, temporary home. There he receives nutritious meals, access to a warm shower, and a safe place to lay his head at night. Winston quit his job as a laborer to care for his mother after she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Once she began radiation and chemotherapy, it became apparent that she would require round-the-clock care. After his mother passed, Winston couldn't find work and was forced to sell his home. In short order, his money ran out and he found himself with neither resources nor a social support system.

"Nothing," says Winston, "can prepare you for the overwhelming stress that goes along with homelessness. You find yourself thinking of doing things to get food that you never thought you would even think about much less do."

By strategically incorporating service learning in our classrooms, educators can offer our expertise to community-based organizations while at the same time educate our students about the complexities of pressing social issues. Along the way, we educate ourselves, too. It's high time we recognize service learning as a mechanism to help engage and empower students beyond the classroom.


Teresa Mastin, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago, has written extensively about media advocacy in the context of minority health issues. She is currently a Public Voices Faculty Fellow with The OpEd Project.