Los Angeles: The Ideal Classroom
One-of-a-Kind Interdisciplinary Intersession Course Takes Students Outside Their Comfort Zone
The crowded room had a lonely feeling.
The strangers, some fatigued and disheveled from a night sleeping outside, sat elbow-to-elbow at circular tables, eating together, but not really “together.” It wasn’t so much uneasiness with each other; just a shared, quiet understanding.
At least that’s how Christine VanLenten ’12 describes the dining area of the St. Francis Center, a community center that serves low-income families and homeless residents in Los Angeles. Just a few blocks from the bright lights of the Staples Center – home to the Lakers and other entertainment events – St. Francis serves a poverty-stricken community where people struggle not just to make ends meet, but for bare necessities.
The center was alive with activity this January morning with volunteers preparing and serving hundreds of meals, others packing grocery bags for pick-up, and patrons filing in. But the dining tables were quiet.
“A lot of people just didn’t talk,” says VanLenten, a nursing major. “They kind of just sat there; there’s not a lot of camaraderie.”
Who was responsible for providing the conversation starters? As it turned out, VanLenten was, as well as the 14 other Scranton students who elected to spend the first week of 2012 taking a joint criminal justice/nursing intersession course called “Gangs and Urban Health in LA.”
“We didn’t realize that we were going to talk to visitors,” recalls VanLenten, relaying her apprehensiveness. “I thought to myself, ‘What are we going to say to them?’”
Taking the students out of their comfort zones was exactly the point of the course, explains Harry Dammer, Ph.D., chair of the University’s Department of Sociology/Criminal Justice, who co-taught the interdisciplinary service-learning class with Catherine Lovecchio, Ph.D., assistant professor of nursing.
“We wanted to make the students uncomfortable, to stretch them beyond what they are normally around, see and do,” Dr. Dammer says.
A chat with a hard up stranger was a great teaching moment.
After breaking the ice, the students found their dining companions were just waiting to converse.
A woman, originally from Ecuador, regaled VanLenten with stories of her childhood, her journey to the United States, as well as the plights she’s faced living on the streets for two-plus years. Despite her struggles, the woman’s optimism resonated with the nursing student.
Christian Gabucci ’13, a criminal justice major, sat with one man for more than an hour, but couldn’t remember saying a word. The homeless man carried the conversation, sharing stories and anecdotes, pleased to have an ear to bend.
“I think a lot of people who go to St. Francis are like that,” Gabucci concludes. “Not only are they looking for food and nutriment, but they are looking for people to respect them, to look at them as human beings, and to just talk to them.”
This lesson in respect and humanity carried on throughout the six-day trip as the students learned of the trials and tribulations of the underserved and imprisoned in the country’s second largest city.
Give Respect, Gain Respect
Once the University contingent hit the ground in Los Angeles, the 18-person faction squeezed in as many learning experiences as possible while balancing the interests of both the criminal justice and nursing majors.
During its first day on the West Coast, the class took in a two-hour presentation at the Los Angeles Police Department, led by Det. Jorge Luis Martinez, detective supervisor of the department’s gangs and narcotics division.
Det. Martinez pulled no punches as he gave his overview of the more than 450 gangs located in his city, sharing graphic photographs and accounts of violence and gang activity.
His presentation was a stark contrast to that afternoon as the class visited Providence St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank, a healthcare facility that places great importance on the facility’s core Christian values of justice, compassion and respect.
The professors explained it was important to show that not all hospitals operate the same way – a valuable lesson as the future nurses prep to enter the workforce.
Day 2 began with a visit to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, best known for being one of the largest jails in the country and for housing such celebrities as Lindsay Lohan and Robert Downey, Jr., points out VanLenten.
The class spoke with a nurse and deputy on staff and toured the jail’s 200-bed healthcare facility, as well as a cellblock pod. It was a harrowing experience staring at convicted murderers and felons just a pane of glass away.
Dr. Lovecchio was impressed with the high-level of care patients receive, while VanLenten gained a new perspective on the inmate/guard relationship.
“The one deputy explained to us that he wasn’t there to make the inmates’ lives any more difficult,” she says. “The deputy said, ‘I’m here to show them respect and in return they give me respect.’”
The Power of Serving Others
To make the best stew for tomorrow’s lunch, a person must sort the good beans from the bad.
On days 3 and 4, the intersession class spent its mornings volunteering at St. Francis, where Gabucci remembers tackling an assortment of chores, including bean sorting – one by one.
When the group wasn’t preparing meals or talking up patrons, members of the class gave a chair exercise and aerobics presentation for the seniors on hand. This activity unexpectedly turned into a salsa dance flash mob, thanks to one energetic elderly attendee who got a hold of a boom box.
While the course was frontloaded with presentations, the latter part concentrated on service activities, including two student-led health fairs – one at the Dolores Mission Church and another at the Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries.
Led by Rev. Gregory Boyle, S.J., Homeboy Industries assists at-risk youths and former gang members to become contributing members of society through job placement, training and education. Former rivals work side by side baking bread, learning to silkscreen, developing retail skills, or running a restaurant and catering company. The organization also offers an array of services from 12-step programs to tattoo removal.
Father Boyle, who received the University’s Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Award for Distinguished Contributions to Ignatian Mission and Ministries in April 2011, was the inspiration behind the course’s creation, according to Dr. Lovecchio and Dr. Dammer.
Testimonials of the program’s successes were everywhere, including the class’ tour guide who was also a former gang member.
“He was 31 years old and had been working at Homeboy for about a year, and those 12 months were the longest stretch that he wasn’t incarcerated since he was 15,” VanLenten recalls. “What I remember most from that day was that he was so enthusiastic about his work and being reformed.”
Reflection for a Deeper Understanding
From the course’s inception, Dr. Dammer and Dr. Lovecchio were deliberate in making the “Gangs and Urban Health in LA” course build upon the ideals of the University’s Catholic and Jesuit mission.
Not only did the students devote time to service and education, as well as attend Mass, but they expanded on their experiences through reflection – one of the key concepts of Jesuit pedagogy.
Led by Jason Downer, N.S.J., a Jesuit novice who accompanied the class, the group hosted a nightly “examen,” recalling the activities of their day.
“Without reflection you can’t take these experiences into your life,” Dr. Dammer explains. “You can’t transform yourself without reflection.”
Gabucci says the examens reminded the group “to be grateful for what we’ve experienced, the people we met, and the places we visited.”
“The class is the perfect example of what Jesuit education should be,” Downer says. “We were immersed with the poor, serving the poor, and meeting reformed gang members. It wasn’t just reading out of a textbook, it was interacting with these people and learning from them.”
These interactions gave the students a new perspective on urban life, shattering stereotypes and preconceived thoughts.
“I think the one thing we – both the nursing and criminal justice majors – can take away from this trip is treating people with respect and having empathy for another,” VanLenten concludes. “It doesn’t matter if it’s patients, inmates or someone else. Everyone wants respect.”