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Volunteering Makes the Community the Classroom

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Kevin Ehrenshaft is the shoulder people cry on, the sympathetic ear and a part-time guide to lost souls.

As a volunteer for a men’s homeless shelter in Southeast Portland and a family shelter in Vancouver, Wash., the Portland Community College student is learning about the side of life where bad goes to worse and hope subsides.

Kevin isn’t necessarily a “right the world’s wrongs” do-gooder. But he is one of the many participants who earns college credit while volunteering in social service settings. This PCC program, known as service learning, is a local adaptation of the national curriculum and service movement.

“There has always been a desire to help somewhere in the community,” said the 41-year-old Kevin. “It just never jelled until I got back in school.”

Before the jelling process took place, Kevin set out to make big bucks in everything from small business ownership in California to hawking electronic wares and knives in swap meet-type venues.

After a series of moderately successful business ventures and projects, with the proverbial money machine chugging along for Kevin and his wife, Victoria, a So. Cal art gallery owner, the rewards still left this former Long Island, N.Y. native wanting. Kevin discovered something on his way to a life of financial success: a true calling.

A tumultuous upbringing in a roughneck neighborhood impressed upon Kevin that youths, families and even adults need someone to lean on when times get tough. The broad-shouldered Kevin wanted what he did with his life to make a difference.

Today, Kevin is making that difference as one of the many PCC students currently volunteering at social service agencies in the Portland Metro area and compiling credits toward a college degree. The philosophy of service learning is to combine academic curriculum and community service for the good of students and community residents. The rewards for Kevin have gone from cold, hard cash to a warm heart.

“I see two guys every now and then that I used to see at (the shelter) now at PCC working to get a degree,” Kevin said with a jolt of enthusiasm. “Those are the real success stories. That’s rewarding to me.”

The service learning movement, buoyed by a study in 1993 at the University of Michigan that concluded student learning improved when volunteerism dove-tailed with coursework, is taking shape rapidly at Portland Community College.

Writing instructor Porter Raper and long-time psychology instructor Gary Lesniak were the driving forces behind bringing service learning to PCC on a grand scale. This fall, Raper led the effort as the college’s service learning coordinator, teaming up enthused faculty with eager students and grateful social service and educational agencies.

“We wanted to connect our students with the community to make their education more relevant and get them to question who they are,” Raper said recently. “We also want them to consider what it means to be an active and participating community member.”

The volunteering generally is done in lieu of a writing assignment or research project within a given class. Kevin’s many classes in sociology, psychology and Spanish prepare him for the master’s degree in social work he is moving toward through dual enrollment at PCC and PSU. He, in turn, writes term papers on his current volunteer assignments at Transition Projects Inc.’s Clark Center, a homeless men’s shelter in Southeast Portland, and the SHARE family shelter in Vancouver, Wash.

“I get so much more out of this,” Kevin said of the volunteering experience. “You can sit down and read a text and regurgitate facts, but you are not really learning anything. (Volunteering) makes what you are learning real.”

PCC student Mo O’Shaughnessy is also kept learning real last fall in the cooperative education seminar “Community Service and Action. Mo coupled schoolwork with volunteering at St. Vincent dePaul, delivering food to under-privileged families in a Southeast Portland neighborhood. She also volunteers at Abernethy Elementary School to tutor special needs students for a PCC writing class, in addition to her food delivering duties with St. Vincent dePaul.

“I have learned that for me there is no room for complaints,” she said. “I also know that I am here to help others.”

It is life-affirming experiences such as these that have transformed Mo, Kevin and others students into an eager crew of service seekers yearning for their coursework and service work to be one and the same. Currently, PCC offers service learning opportunities in several disciplines, including sociology, writing, political science, criminal justice and even automotive technology.

In addition to Service Learning, PCC also offers Cooperative Education volunteer opportunities. For the last 20 years through Cooperative Education, PCC has allowed students to volunteer in workplace environments for course credit as long as the volunteer assignment is within a student’s chosen field of study and if it meets his or her future career goals.

Bolstering this mostly faculty- and student-fueled effort is the PCC Service-to-Community Scholarship Program through the PCC Foundation. These scholarships are set aside for students who promise to do volunteer work at social service and educational agencies in their communities. Local businesses fund these scholarships.

One ardent supporter of the program for a number of years has been the PGE/Enron Foundation. Gwenyth Gamble Booth, the PGE/Enron Foundation chairwoman, said support continues because the foundation believes in the mission of the PCC Service-to-Community Scholarship program to help students help their communities.

“We commend PCC’s commitment to help students learn a valuable lesson, that they make a difference in the world by volunteering their time,” she said.

To find out more about PCC’s Service Learning program and how your agency can get involved, contact Porter Raper at 978-5283. For information on the PCC Foundation Service to Community Scholarship Program, call Jan Coulton at 977-4374. To learn about Cooperative Education opportunities, call Lynn Geis at 977-4559.