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Community Engaged Learning initiative launches volunteer program in Waltham

By bpaterno

Section: Front Page, News

February 1, 2008

This week, Brandeis students and faculty involved in Community Engaged Learning launched their new volunteer program, which aids residents of the Prospect Hill community in Waltham. This project, which began Tuesday, allows members of the Brandeis community to interact, tutor, and share with the residents of Prospect Hill, a public housing development in Waltham.

“We’ve had two very exciting days,” said Prof. Mark Auslander (ANTH), the Academic Director for Community Engaged Learning. “This project is really wonderful for tenants who have fought so long and so hard for this opportunity.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Brandeis students led homework tutoring at Prospect Hill’s newly opened community center, along with evening programs that included English language tutoring for adults, and poetry workshops led by VOCAL.

“We were always told that Prospect Hill is just an impossible area. We were told that we should stay away from there; that it’s this place of abject poverty where the housing authority is so difficult to work with,” explained Auslander. Despite this, volunteers and residents have together managed to form a tenants’ association.

The new community center has also been a project for Brandeis students. “These people have been battling a stigma,” explained Jenna Kon ‘10, a CEL undergraduate representative in charge of adult programs.

“They had the right to a community center, but don’t really have the resources to run one by themselves, and invited us to help,” Kon said. The center, which is now located in a 3-bedroom apartment, will be moved to a larger space next year.

This volunteering initiative focuses on family literacy, and aims not only to help educate children, but also to involve the entire family in learning. “We love that it’s a great place for art and imagination to flourish,” commented Auslander.

Kon also noted that they were helping the tenants to realize their rights. She remarked, “Brandeis has really been like a moving force in helping them and getting their voice out.”

The project has so far been a success. Eleven students participated in homework tutoring on Tuesday, and on Wednesday the number nearly doubled to 21. Auslander shared one experience, saying, “”here was a wonderful moment [on Wednesday] when a woman who spoke very little English came up and told the English language tutors that she wanted to start learning.”

Lauren Ehrlich ‘10, a CEL representative in charge of tutoring, agreed, pointing out that the tenants were “incredibly appreciative of the work we are doing.”

The community has involved itself in the programs. On Wednesday, three teenaged girls wrote and performed a poem for the volunteers. The young people also help to run the registration desk and clean up together with Brandeis volunteers.

“It’s not just Brandeis students teaching, but it’s also people in the community teaching us,” Auslander remarked.

Ten Brandeis courses this semester include “significant community-engaged components,” according to the Community-Engaged Learning website. These courses range from anthropology to computer courses. Some, such as Prof. Jane Hale’s French class, which has helped teach the community about Haitian culture, are actively participating in the Prospect Hill initiative.

“From the standpoint of the faculty, this project is enormously exciting,” said Auslander. He continued, “Brandeis students are learning by doing, getting exposed to key critical issues in the community, and thinking more about American society, social anthropology, politics of representation, and so forth.” Prof. Ellen Schattschneider (ANTH) has also been heavily involved in this project.

Those involved in this initiative are urging the Brandeis community to contribute. Auslander commented, “there is so much you can do, and this project so consistent with who we are at Brandeis. We are always looking for donations, books for young adults, and especially for volunteers who can help teachers.”

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