Psychology students put classroom learning into action with homeless youth

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Volunteerism is a hallmark of Iowa State University student organizations, and one ISU group has been finding success assisting a particularly vulnerable population: homeless children.

From left, ISU student Katharine Brown; psychology professor and chair Carolyn Cutrona; and students Michael Ge and Katie Donnegan.

Each spring semester since 2010, Iowa State students in the Department of Psychology learning community have volunteered with children at an Ames homeless shelter, the Emergency Residence Project. ERP is a nonprofit organization that provides shelter and other resources to individuals and families struggling to find housing.

“It was a truly humbling experience to see such young children dealing with such great strife, yet be so happy,” said Katharine Brown, a senior in history and psychology. “The experience really put my stress and problems into perspective.”

Brown is one of the many psychology learning community students who have volunteered at the ERP.

Carolyn Cutrona’s psychology learning community students.

Iowa State has about 80 learning communities, small groups of students who generally take one or more courses together, receive peer and faculty mentoring, and provide strong academic support for one another. Students in some learning communities live together in the same residence hall.

The Department of Psychology is an academic unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ISU.

Carolyn Cutrona, professor and chair of psychology, leads the learning community, which focuses on academics, leadership and community service.

Putting learning into action “We wanted to give students a way to put what they’re learning in the classroom into action in the community,” said Cutrona, who requires all of her first-year students to volunteer in the community. “There is so much indifference to suffering in the world, and I wanted to push our students to change that. As psychologists, we believe it is important to understand the effects of poverty on children. Spending time with the children at ERP gives students an inside look."

Each week at ERP, ISU students spend quality time with homeless youth and participate in activities, such as arts and crafts, that create special one-on-one moments with the children.

“It gives the parents safe and predictable childcare for an hour or two and gives the children the opportunity to have lots of adult attention and admiration,” Cutrona said.

The learning community, which was founded on the theme, “poverty in America,” allows students to take courses tailored to the theme. Students are required to enroll in a psychology course and a philosophy course concurrently with the volunteer service. The courses explore research on attitudes toward helping others, and related issues in ethics and morality to provide students an opportunity to look deeper into issues related to poverty.

“These classes allow students to explore fundamental theories and questions such as, ‘Why don’t we help the poor?’” Cutrona said.

Brown, who also serves as a peer mentor for the learning community, said her experience at ERP was both educational and fulfilling. She was reminded of the blessings in her own life and also of the amazing resiliency of children.

"They were some of the happiest children I have ever met," Brown said. "It was impossible to leave the ERP without feeling happier and hopeful.”

Megan Dodd, a senior in psychology and another peer mentor for the learning community, said the volunteer experience was rewarding for the psychology students and the children.

“The kids were able to get away from their sometimes stressful home environments and just be kids with us. We made crafts, sang songs and just listened to all the stories they were excited to share with us,” Dodd said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor or somewhere in between, kids just want to laugh and have fun. That’s what we were there to help them do.”

Helping youth at school Some psychology learning community students have volunteered elsewhere. Peer mentor Michael Ge, a junior in psychology, taught English as a second language (ESL) at an Ames elementary school. Ge began the spring semester of his freshman year mentoring at the school for Youth Shelter and Services of Ames. While waiting for an after-school program to start, he met two young students from China in the principal’s office. They began speaking to Ge in Chinese.

“They didn’t know any English and were really struggling in school," said Ge. "The principal actually heard me talking with them, and I was asked to work with the ESL program.”

Ge, who finished first grade in China before moving to Pella, Iowa, for his parents’ work, said he related to the children and remembered his struggles to fit in and learn English when he moved to Iowa.

“It was fun to look at things from their perspective. I was in ESL through second grade, so I saw a bit of myself in them,” he said, adding that the most rewarding aspect of volunteering was the gratitude he received.

“The best moment was meeting the parents of the children. They were so ecstatic to see the growth and happiness of their children, and they were very appreciative of my work.”

Because of increased student interest, the Psychology Department has added a second section to the learning community, led by faculty member Karen Scheel. Her students will be volunteering in Ames at Youth and Shelter Services and Laverne Apartments, a low-income housing complex.

"Word has gotten out about the benefits of belonging to the learning community," Scheel said. -30-

About Liberal Arts and Sciences The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is a world-class learning and research community. Iowa State’s most academically diverse college, LAS educates students to become global citizens, providing rigorous academic programs in the sciences, humanities and social sciences within a supportive personalized learning environment. College faculty design new materials, unravel biological structures, care for the environment, and explore social and behavioral issues. From fundamental research to technology transfer and artistic expression, the college supports people in Iowa and around the world.

NEWS RELEASE College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Iowa State University Contacts: Carolyn Cutrona, Psychology, (515) 294-0282, Katherine Marcheski, Liberal Arts and Sciences Communications, Steve Jones, Liberal Arts and Sciences Communications, (515) 294-0461,