August 8, 2023

A Conversation with Shawn Tenney, Director of Service Learning at Western Michigan University

Welcome back to the CIS POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Shawn Tenney the Director of Service Learning at Western Michigan University. As classes slowed down for the summer, we reached out to Shawn to learn more about the WMU Service-Learning program and to get to know her better.

According to WMU Service Learning webpage, found here, the Service-Learning program at Western Michigan University originated in 2010 with a mission to connect and engage students, faculty, and the community in projects that intentionally redistribute power, create egalitarian partnerships, and generate deeper learning and civic engagement to benefit the greater community.

Where does CIS fit in as a partner? We have been a partner for the past eight years providing a variety of opportunities for Western students to work inside school classrooms and exposing both WMU and KPS students to new experiences and serve to build a better community. Opportunities range from tutoring one-on-one with students to hosting a health fair within the school community to a community-wide donation drive.

CIS Volunteer Coordinator, Nicky Aiello says, “Our partnership with the WMU Service-Learning program has been super valuable. Students who volunteer have the freedom to choose a type of volunteering that best fits their interests. For example, some volunteers tutor, some help a teacher in a classroom, some assist at recess, others help distribute Friday food packs, and more. I am excited to see this partnership continue to grow and to see more and more students benefit from working with WMU Service-Learning students and other student volunteers. This year, 27 WMU Service-Learning students were placed at 8 different schools during both the school day and within after school programming.”

Alright, Shawn: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck. 

What brought you to Kalamazoo?

I grew up in the surrounding area, specifically Parchment as a little girl, but I have always been around Kalamazoo with my family. I’m living in Kalamazoo and bought my godparent’s house more than 30 years ago. I went to Kalamazoo College for my undergraduate and completed my master’s degree in social work from Western Michigan University, which has prepared me for my role now. I was introduced to service learning at Kalamazoo College and saw the potential as a learning tool. Social Work was a natural fit for me, because I am very passionate about social justice.

What do you believe are the main benefits of service learning for the students we serve, and the college students participating in the program?

For the “littles” having any kind of positive interaction has the potential to change the course of their lives in a positive way. It really doesn’t matter what they are doing; anything positive is good for kids. With student mentorships, we have seen positive changes for kids who have a history of behavioral issues. It helps remove them from that loop of behavior and sets them up for learning.

For the “WMU students” being exposed to people and situations to which they lack experience is priceless. You learn more about who you are, how you fit in, and how much agency you have to make change. Some students can be so intimidated by the broad spectrum of needs that it can become a handicap to serving the community. With service learning, they can increase their knowledge and believe, “There is something I can do.”

How does service learning differ from an internship or volunteering?

Often, people are sent into the world unprepared. They don’t know who or why they are serving. Volunteering is certainly wonderful and makes us feel good but doesn’t always go deep enough. Internships guide them in their specific learning coursework. Service-learning lands between the two. Through service learning, students are soaking everything up at once, filling in the gaps, and learning who they are as people. 

What is your perspective of the partnership between CIS and the WMU service-learning program throughout the years? 

In addition to the service-learning program, we [Western Michigan University] partner with CIS through social work internships, and community work study programs. We all are part of the partnership and appreciate the collaboration with CIS and are always open to expanding the partnership.

Our service-learning program started with adopting a family at Spring Valley Center for Exploration, which then moved to tutoring, then mentoring, then lunch clubs—the incredible thing is that no matter what comes down the pipeline, we figure out a way to adapt. I really appreciate the work being done on the ground level by CIS folks and their willingness to try new things and be innovative in our partnership.

When COVID hit, it really drove that home. We had to collaborate and figure out what can be done while in the changing environment. What are the physical needs and how can we fulfil those needs? We ended up doing donation drives since we couldn’t be in the buildings. Students were doing more than “getting stuff”. They were encouraged to reach out to and build upon their personal and professional networks to involve the wider community. It was cool to see their reflection papers in the end and discover that they still got a lot out of their project. We appreciate the opportunity to expand and flex depending on the need.

Speaking of reflection papers, could you walk me through an example of a course at WMU and how they incorporate service learning into the classroom?

The minimum requirement is 15 hours per semester and learning objectives are more specific to the course than an internship’s practice of a broad skill set.

One of our capstone business courses focuses on ethical and sustainable business practices and leadership. The professor provides questions to the students like: What did you see? How did it make you feel? How might you utilize this in your future professional practices? Along with specific learning outcomes like discovering their [student] leadership style. Students are placed with community partners throughout Kalamazoo and beyond and serve in various roles, such as providing tech support to seniors, organizing social activities in long-term care facilities, such as bowling, and playground activities and foreign language clubs at schools, etc. With the Spring Valley donation drive, students were making connections with local businesses and learning how to mobilize people to get involved to make change.

Ok, now let’s get to some of the fun questions about you! What is something interesting that you have learned recently?

[laughing] If you are building a retaining wall, you want to make sure your bottom layer is completely level.

It sounds like you are speaking from a recent experience, and something happened.

Yes! My wall fell and I fell into it. Oh, and do it before it gets to 90 degrees outside.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

My family. My mom, dad, and sister have been my cheerleaders since the first day. Also, I had an amazing professor, Kim Cummings, at K. Between him and Don Cooney’s activism, my course was set! Another person who has made a big impact is Evan Heiser, my supervisor. He does servant leadership just beautifully. He truly values service learning and the impact students receive through it.

What are you currently reading?

Currently, I am reading “An Abundance of Katherines” by John Green. I tend to read more young literature instead of adult novels. I like to read the Newbery Award winner books.

What is your favorite word right now?

“Wow”. I use it all the time. It means I am learning something new every day. I now even have students repeat it back to me [laughing].

Before we finish our quiz, I am going to ask one last question. What was one of the most surprising notes or feedback that you have received from a student (or students) who participated in the service learning program?

Sometimes it is surprising to learn “where” students find meaning through their work. Sometimes I think their takeaway will be one thing and it ends up being something completely different. They have found many treasures—not through some big aha moment—but many little things that touch your heart.

Through the program, so many students come to realize that they can make change.That really is amazing. Thank you, Shawn, for your valued partnership and hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.

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