The power of volunteering: PSU professor makes service a part of his classes
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Posted: May 29, 2018

Students in David Peterson del Mar's Freshman Inquiry seminar learn as much outside the classroom as they do in by volunteering.

Exploring the historical and cultural context of immigration, migration and belonging is one thing, but talking to someone and learning about the lived experience is something else entirely. Lessons come to life as the 31 College of Liberal Arts and Sciences freshmen spend weekday afternoons or Saturday mornings tutoring English-as-a-second-language students at area schools and community organizations. 

By volunteering in the community, they not only provide much needed support to students who need extra help with reading and other subjects, but they also gain an understanding of the struggles faced by recent immigrants and refugees — and, with that, tolerance, empathy and patience.

Peterson del Mar, a history and university studies professor who has been making a conscious effort to incorporate hands-on volunteer work into his coursework over the last year, said adding a service component not only gives students the chance to get out of their comfort zone and help people in need, but also opens the door to career opportunities they otherwise might not have considered.

"They learn about the power they have even at age 18 to make a difference in someone's life right now," said Peterson del Mar, who is also co-founder and president of Yo Ghana!, a nonprofit that facilitates pen-pal exchanges between students in the Pacific Northwest and Ghana.

He said it's an opportunity to carry out the university's motto of "Let knowledge serve the city," and is now working with other faculty members to make it easier for more PSU classes to volunteer with vulnerable youth in the area.

His efforts began last spring when he required students in his Honors College course to tutor English Language Learner students at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, where he had already been volunteering once a week.

"I started volunteering there because I believe strongly in working with vulnerable youth whenever possible and that got me thinking about getting PSU students involved," he said.

The experiences were so beneficial that he decided to continue integrating service into his curriculum this year. 

Students in his yearlong Freshman Inquiry course volunteer in groups at eight area sites, helping to tutor students after school or on the weekends. In the fall, students in his History of Immigrants course worked with recent immigrant students at Reynolds High School as they interviewed elders and explored their cultural identities, and every term, he's been offering a one-credit tutoring internship at Reynolds.

Meiling Bonglamphone, a freshman majoring in business management and leadership, spends two hours a week as a tutor at Reynolds, a new experience for her but one that she says she enjoys.

She was nervous at first, but with each week, she and the students have become more comfortable with one another.

"I want to help them and want them to see that we're trying to help them — that they have opportunities and that they have people who can help them," she said. 

Bonglamphone said she might continue volunteering at Reynolds even after the class ends.

"If anybody has a chance of volunteering, they should," she said. "It's a great experience for them to learn more about your community and how you can impact it."

Peterson del Mar said something that's helped them build deeper relationships with the students they're tutoring is story sharing, an exercise he learned from Narrative 4 in which partners learn each other's stories then retell them in the first person to a larger group. Peterson del Mar said it's an opportunity for students to become vulnerable with one another and share deeply personal stories that help them walk away with a better understanding of the struggles others face.

Bonglamphone, along with her fellow classmates who also volunteer at Reynolds, are helping to get a story-sharing club off the ground there.

Peterson del Mar said the service-learning experience has been one in which everyone benefits. Students interact with and learn from people they might not often encounter. The middle and high school students feel encouraged by the volunteers that college is not beyond their reach, and the PSU students not only grow in self-confidence but see that they can be an inspiration for others.

"They're 14, they're struggling, some of them are worried about becoming homeless and then they see this PSU student who's poised, bright, confident," Peterson del Mar said. "That's where they could be in four years. So many students at PSU have overcome a lot of hardships to get here so they're amazing role models."

In some cases, the volunteer work has led students to change their majors and begin exploring the possibility of careers in teaching, social work, nonprofits and other public service. Peterson del Mar said one student who was initially reluctant about volunteering is now thinking about becoming a teacher since he's enjoyed it so much.

Peterson del Mar said it's important to give students a chance to apply what they're learning in the classroom and make connections between their work and broader social issues.

"You care about these students, but how could you make the largest impact and how do you assess the work that you're doing?" he said. "So volunteering isn't just to make you feel better and to help in some sort of vague way; it's attached to the critical thinking, research and writing skills that you're learning at Portland State. It's an intellectual endeavor as well as an emotional one."

He gave his freshman students group projects built around improving something at the school or organization they've been volunteering at. Some groups, for example, are looking at how to improve student attendance and participation.

Peterson del Mar said academics often believe they have special insights that can change the world, but he thinks they can have more of an impact when they inspire and empower students to want to make a difference.

"The sad truth of it is that very few people will read what we write so I don't think what I've written has had very much of an impact at all," he said. "But through our teaching and our relationships and going out into the community and forming collaborations and getting people to work together, that's had such an incredible impact."

Photos: At top, PSU history professor David Peterson del Mar, left, is pictured with a group of his students who volunteer at Reynolds High School in Troutdale. Also pictured from left is Natalie Dutko, Aline Alvarez, Isabella Maranghi, Meiling Bonglamphone, Paola Vargas, and Reynolds High School language arts teacher Debra Tavares. In the bottom picture, freshman Meiling Bonglamphone helps a student.