By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Sharina Jackson, a CSU Chico sociology student, greets guest James Cox as he checks in to the Torres Community Shelter in Chico.
The homeless line up outside Torres Community Shelter in Chico. The door opens and Sherena Jackson, a student volunteer, greets a homeless man with a smile, a kind word, and basic necessities like soap and shampoo. She is joined by other CSU Chico students, all in their 20s, who also hand each “guest” plastic containers, not exceeding 25 pounds, which store most of their worldly goods.
Cynthia Siemsen, chair of CSU Chico’s Department of Sociology and a California Faculty Association member, proudly watches her students perform service learning that connects classroom learning with hands-on experience.
“This is a powerful way for students to learn sociology,” says Siemsen. “Every time students learn a theory, they have to analyze homelessness and/or mental illness in this class. They can understand firsthand, through volunteer work with the homeless, how this theory comes into play.”
At the end of the semester, each student writes a paper connecting their experiences at the shelter to what they have learned in class. Their papers reveal that volunteering at the shelter has made the course material relevant, deepened their understanding of theory, and even influenced their career paths in the nonprofit or social services sector. They are also proud to be part of a class that has contributed more than 350 hours of service to a worthy cause in their community.
The students’ T-shirts have a quote by sociologist C. Wright Mills on the back: “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” They selected the quote because their perspective on society has changed dramatically from this assignment, which requires 10 hours of volunteering at the shelter. Students may balk at first, but many continue to volunteer long after their course requirement is fulfilled. They do laundry, serve food and help as needed.
Jackson expected to find the shelter depressing, but discovered that a sense of community bolsters the spirits of residents, who are permitted to stay 180 days. “They have a social life like a family,” she explains. “They come up with their own rules. They play ping-pong. They do magic tricks. And they all have different stories about how they came to be here.”
Siemsen says her students’ stereotypes about homelessness — especially the one that most homeless people are mentally ill — are shattered after working in the shelter.
“What I have learned most from this experience and from my teacher is compassion,” says Stephanie Brazil. “Dr. Siemsen is the most compassionate person I know. She cares about the homeless, and she cares about her students as people. She wants us to grow as people. And thanks to her, we are doing just that.”