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Students share the impact of their service-learning experiences

Dec. 8, 2016 - BOSTON, MA. - Scenes during the Service-Learning EXPO Fall 2016 event held in the Curry Student Center Ballroom at Northeastern University on Dec. 8, 2016. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Varsha Ramsumair said she teared up during her final visit with the Boston elementary school students she’d been working with this semester through a service-learning course called “Human Services Professions.”

Ramsumair, SSH’20, a combined major in human services and criminal justice, and three other students mentored female third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders for 90 minutes on Friday afternoons through a partnership with Northeastern’s chapter of Strong Women Strong Girls. The curriculum is designed around the nonprofit organization’s mission of empowering girls, with college students serving as role models and leading a range of activities—from helping the girls share their “peaks and valleys” moments of the day to discussing prominent female leaders and role models.

The particularly touching moment, Ramsumair recalled, came when one of the girls admitted that early in the semester she wasn’t sure whether these college mentors would truly care for her and her peers. But, according to Ramsumair, the girl said, “by the end she felt like she could really be herself.”

Ramsumair noted that she was struck by the ability of the girls and college mentors to bring “good energy” into each other’s days. Through the service-learning experience, she discovered she wants to continue working with youth, noting, “This is such a good cause I believe in.” She added that a significant part of her classwork focused on analyzing and defining social change, which she kept in the front of her mind when working with the girls. “True to the content of my class, I want these girls to be empowered to create positive social change, to believe in their efficacy,” she said.

Ramsumair was one of more than 200 students who presented at the Fall 2016 Service-Learning Expo, held last week in the Curry Student Center Ballroom. Service-learning is a form of experiential learning that integrates academics and service in order to merge classroom and community goals throughout the semester. Students’ coursework includes serving the community by volunteering directly or completing projects with one of many of Northeastern’s service-learning partner organizations—from schools and city departments, to nonprofits that serve neighborhoods, youth, and the elderly—and then linking those experiences back to the classroom.

True to the content of my class, I want these girls to be empowered to create positive social change, to believe in their efficacy.
—Varsha Ramsumair, SSH’20

More than 800 students enrolled in service-learning courses this fall, collectively working with 114 community partners, according to Haomu Chen, AMD’18. He planned the expo as part of his co-op in the service-learning program, which is part of the Center of Community Service within Northeastern’s Office of City and Community Affairs.

Becca Berkey, director of service-learning at Northeastern, said the expo gives students the chance to learn about their peers’ work in the neighborhoods surrounding campus while showcasing the university’s myriad community partners.

Berkey underscored the breadth and depth of the work service-learning faculty do, particularly when it comes to showing students how so many disciplines—from engineering, to business, to computer science, to art—have a place in civic society. “That’s something you can’t simulate; it’s really something special,” she said.

Christopher Scianna, a third-year electrical and computer engineering major, was one of a handful of Northeastern students this semester who worked with sixth-graders to helpthem build “sumo robots." Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern

Christopher Scianna, a third-year electrical and computer engineering major, was one of a handful of Northeastern students this semester who worked with sixth-graders to helpthem build “sumo robots.” Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern

Among the expo’s presenters was Christopher Scianna, a third-year electrical and computer engineering major. Scianna and his classmates in the “Cornerstone Robotics” course, taught by teaching professor Susan Freeman, connected with several community partners to help sixth graders build “sumo robots” designed to face off against each other in friendly competition.

Scianna worked with students at the Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. He said that though this service-learning experience, Northeastern students teach youth skills such as engineering design and coding as they build robots together throughout the semester. To hone their own skills, Scianna and his peers build different robots in class as part of their coursework.

This semester marked the third service-learning course Scianna has taken in which he’s taught local youth about robotics through this partnership, and he said it’s been rewarding to help advance STEM education. “They’re getting this experience in 6th and 7th grade,” said Scianna, who didn’t get involved in robotics until his freshman year at Northeastern, “and hopefully it can be a stepping stone for them.”