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Students in service-learning course give voice to overlooked youth

Try finding this final project in any other college class.

Rather than writing a paper or making a presentation, students enrolled in associate professor of communication studies Greg Goodale’s Service-Learning Advocacy Workshop organized a day of events at the Massachusetts State House last week. There, they lobbied legislators and rallied members of the public to support legislation that would improve the lives of foster children in Massachusetts who age out of the system.

Students and legislators spoke in Nurses Hall and a cappella singers performed pop songs such as Ed Sheeran’s “A Team” and David Guetta’s “Titanium.”

“We want it to be really hard for people to miss what we’re doing,” said Ryanne Olsen, a second-year student pursuing a combined major in political science and communication studies.

The day of events marked a culmination of months of work in which students researched the foster care system, lobbied lawmakers, and helped foster children develop the skills to advocate on their own behalf. One of the goals of the course is to draw support for several bills that would improve the state’s foster care system, which Goodale said leaves too many to fend for themselves.

“I love teaching this class,” said Goodale, whose research focuses on public advocacy and political rhetoric. “The opportunities it provides are out of this world.”

Ask his students, who report that the course not only teaches them to spark reform and address public policy issues from different perspectives, but also reshapes their career ambitions.

“I took the first ever advocacy course and it changed my life and the course of my career,” said Brittany Santoro, a 2011 graduate of the communication studies program. Advocating for foster care reforms in Goodale’s class, she explained, prompted her to get a job with Demand Abolition, a nonprofit organization that combats sex trafficking, a system to which foster children are disproportionately tied.

Santoro has even extended a full-time job offer to another one of Goodale’s pupils; Devon Rebello, a fifth-year communication studies major who served as an intern and co-op for Demand Abolition, will join the staff full-time after graduating in May.

This semester’s Advocacy Workshop has the support of State Senator Katherine Clark and State Rep. Gloria Fox, whose district includes part of Northeastern and who grew up in the foster care system.

“There is so often just nothing for these young people,” Fox said. “So we have to make sure there are some safeguards put in place.”

Goodale’s course pushes students outside their comfort zones, they said, forcing them to develop the same knowledge and skills that a professional lobbyist would bring to an issue.

“We’re trying to make it so foster kids are no longer a voiceless population,” said Rebello, who took Godale’s course and now serves as his teaching assistant. “Often foster kids don’t have the opportunity to speak out on what’s working and not working, and if they do it’s often not taken as credible. It’s a responsibility the students in this class do not take lightly, and they’ve seen results, too, helping three pieces of legislation get passed in recent years.”

Though the semester is drawing to a close, Fox urged the young advocates to continue supporting social causes, foster care or otherwise. ‘Each of you can find your niche, each of you can find your bliss, and each of you can find ways to improve lives in very real, very important ways,” she told them.