‘Ripple Effect’ learning community centers on service, social change

Gabby Thompson and other freshman participants in The Ripple Effect Learning Community split wood as part of service work in Clay County.

Gabby Thompson and other freshman participants in The Ripple Effect Learning Community split wood as part of service work in Clay County.

An interest in service and a love for people inspired a group of Western Carolina University students to join a new learning community this fall called The Ripple Effect – an initiative designed to challenge students to not only observe the “ripples” that small acts and service perpetuate for social change, but also to jump in and make ripples themselves.

“There are people who watch things happen, people who wonder what happened and people who make things happen,” said Lane Perry, director of the Center for Service Learning and part of the faculty and staff working with the community. “This group will be classified as the latter.”

The inaugural 22-student cohort of The Ripple Effect, one of a dozen themes of WCU’s curricular and living-learning communities, will take two classes together this fall and two in the spring. The courses include a specially designed transition course for first-year students, a seminar centered on entrepreneurship and creating ripple effects, a special topics course in criminology and criminal justice, and a leadership and student development course. In addition, participating students will choose community engagement projects to complete together during the 2013-14 academic year that align with the community needs and issues that matter most to them.

The year kicked off with a presemester retreat at Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville in which participating students connected as a group and began to reflect on who they are and who they are in connection with service and civic engagement. They also spent time in service, splitting wood and helping two Clay County residents with home repairs the residents could not do themselves. One had been trying to get help for several years, said Jason Burch, director of housing ministries for Hinton Rural Life Center.

“The students were a blessing and probably don’t realize this but they certainly impacted those two homeowners in a big way,” Burch said. “What they have done goes a long way. Both residents told me they felt like they won the lottery in some ways and were very, very appreciative.”

The activities and plans for the learning community offered a strong fit for students such as William Hopper, a freshman from Raleigh who plans to major in criminology, who wanted to find a way to help others in need while at WCU. Michelle Powers, a freshman from Rolesville who wants to study criminal justice, said she loves meeting people and was drawn to the connections she would get to make at the university and in the Ripple Effect learning community. Leticia Yanez, a freshman from Asheville who plans to major in nursing, said she wanted to take part after having volunteered at Manna Food Bank as a high school student.

“The experience I gained was an eye-opener,” said Yanez. “Big issues like hunger are happening every day in our area, and I loved being part of a solution.”

For Alissa Ross, a freshman from Polkton who wants to become a physician’s assistant, the learning community provides an opportunity to learn more about how to bring people together to evoke positive change in a community. While in high school, Ross was part of efforts to help raise thousands of dollars for a teacher going into the mission field and for the family of a child diagnosed with leukemia.

“When I would see a need, I would try my hardest to get everyone involved to fill the need,” said Ross.

The idea for the learning community developed during a summer 2012 retreat at WCU centered on learning communities in which groups of participants were asked to dream up a new community.

“Ours was called ‘The Ripple Effect’ and was driven by the idea that we can teach our students that they can make a difference and have an impact,” said Rebecca Lasher, assistant professor of social work.

Supporting the development of the Ripple Effect learning community is a $7,000 grant from the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Bringing Theory to Practice program, which supports and encourages liberal education in linking the learning, well-being and civic development of students.