Serving to Learn: Students Studying Abroad in New Zealand Bring Home Dedication to Volunteering After Innovative “Rebuilding Christchurch” Course at University of Canterbury
As we watch the ongoing coastal rebuilding effort in the United States following Hurricane Sandy, there is much to be learned from Christchurch, New Zealand, where earthquakes struck in 2010 and 2011, damaging some 60% of the historic city.
The extensive rebuilding effort in Christchurch represents big shoulders upon which future generations will learn and stand when natural or manmade disasters touch their communities.
In fact, New Zealand students and those studying abroad at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch are learning by doing through an innovative, hands-on course called “Rebuilding Christchurch: An Introduction to Community Engagement in Tertiary Studies,” or CHCH101.
The GlobaLinks NewsWire recently interviewed Billy O’Steen, senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury and creator of CHCH101, about the course’s impact on students. Here’s what he had to say:
GlobaLinks NewsWire: How would you describe the “Rebuilding Christchurch” course and how students relate to it?
O’Steen: I have observed that students see this course as being different in a number of ways from most of the other courses that they take here in that they are discussion – not lecture – based, and the discussions are focused on things that are inherently of interest to the students, namely how they see themselves as active, or not, members of their communities both in New Zealand and, for study abroad students, back home.
The texts we use for the course – articles from academic and mainstream sources, poems, excerpts from books, films, and guest speakers – are all chosen to provoke curiosity, reflection, and consideration of what students will do next to positively affect the world.
That alone would make for an engaging course but we have the privilege and opportunity to couple the discussions and the texts with service for various constituencies in Christchurch who have been affected by the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. The service, then, provides us with the chance to not just contemplate the content of the discussions and texts but to actually grapple with it and come to deeper understandings of what it means to participate and contribute in the world.
Q: So far, how many students have completed the course and is it still a popular course selection?
A: We have offered the course 5 times now and over 300 students have completed it. During the two offerings of it in 2012, we have had around 40% of the enrolments coming from study abroad students. It definitely continues to be popular and some programs are considering making it either a requirement or a strongly encouraged option.
Q: How many of the students who have taken the course are from outside of New Zealand (i.e. studying abroad there)?
A: Of the 90 students who have taken it during semester 1 and semester 2 of 2012, about 35 of them have been study abroad students.
Q: For those students, in particular, what are some of the most salient aspects of the course?
A: I think that the students’ quotes (below) can describe the course better than I can, but essentially I think that CHCH101 is the only course that a study abroad student can take that focuses specifically on how Christchurch citizens responded to the earthquakes and puts that into context through reading about how others have responded to disasters (Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Irene, the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, the Joplin, MO and Tuscaloosa, AL tornadoes) and then being able to actually do something tangible toward the recovery of Christchurch through the service projects.
There is no other course at Canterbury or perhaps at many other universities in the world except for Tulane University where students can engage in this kind of experience.
Importantly, this course gives students permission to get involved in Christchurch beyond the campus and in parts of the city where they otherwise would not have ventured.
Q: Is there one service learning activity, or one major change in a student that you’ve seen unfold that really stands out to demonstrate the power of the course?
A: I think the most important realization that students have had while doing this course is that service is really a state of mind as much as it is a physical activity. Recently, our class performed service in the form of very manual, grunt labor by helping to get landscaping materials (rocks, plants, planter boxes, patio stones, etc.) from a house that is soon to be demolished in a neighborhood where it is the last one to be occupied out of hundreds of houses. We then took those landscaping materials to a pre-school that has recently relocated for the 4th time since the earthquakes and their new location is rather barren and in need of landscaping. Amidst the physical labor, we heard the stories of the woman who is still living in the red-zoned house, the pre-school director, a parent at the pre-school, and then interacted with the kids as they helped us unload the materials. On a wider level, we were interacting with people who live in a low socio-economic area of the city and who were struggling before the quakes. Thus, beyond just thinking about their lives and challenges post-disaster, we were confronted with the social and economic inequalities that exist in most places. At the beginning of the day, I invited the students to really focus on what they were learning beyond just the manual labor. Needless to say, they were absolutely bursting with reflections about our experiences on many levels.
Q: Is there anything else you want to mention?
A: We’re starting to hear back from study abroad students who took the course in Semester 1 of this year (Feb-June) and have now returned to their US/Canada campuses. We know of at least 3 students who have gone on to do some substantial work in service learning based on their experiences in CHCH101.
For 2 students, their CHCH101 experiences have led to very cool professionally significant opportunities – one student has presented at a TEDx event about her time in Christchurch and another student used the format of our class to propose and land a job as a student facilitator for a seminar series on her campus.
Another student is attempting to set up a student volunteer organization, much like the Student Volunteer Army here. So, I’m really stoked that not only did study abroad students contribute to our rebuild in Christchurch, but they are now going back to focus on the rebuilding that is needed in many of their own communities.
What students are saying about the CHCH101 “Rebuilding Christchurch” course:
- Thanks for the course. I really enjoyed it, very thought provoking and inspiring, so glad I did it. Unlike any other course, makes you reflect on life and look at the real issues in life in an academic and practical way!
- After doing the service project in CHCH101, I feel like I’ve earned the right to say that I live in Christchurch and not just visiting here.
- When my Kiwi friends would ask me why I came to Christchurch in the first place, I used to not have a very good answer. But now I know exactly what to say: I came to Christchurch now because it is a unique experience to see a city rise from ashes, to heal, and even more important is the fact that as being a student here living and breathing the city I have become an exhilarating part of the process. The all-inclusive civic dimension of healing also has an effect on the individuals within that community. But this means that we all have a part in healing the city as well. This learning matter because it puts the fate of Christchurch not in the hands of the city council, but rather in the hands of every person in the garden city.”