A journalist by profession, Diana Dawson knew that covering social issues meant she had to be out in the field to hear the stories of people living the problems. Now, as an instructor for the School of Journalism at UT-Austin she incorporates this into her inter-disciplinary Senior Fellow’s seminar called “Communicating the Human Side of Social Issues.”
Dawson’s strength is her ability to integrate service-learning into her seminars so students really learn how to explore social issues and convey them from the human perspective. For two semesters, she brought students to East Austin to learn about longtime residents who were paying the price of gentrification. This past Spring 2012 semester, her class focused on the experience of immigrants living in Austin. Highlighting the importance of service in this type of class Dawson stated, “Service is not just about people on the receiving end. I can see the real value to the students who are performing the service. It gives perspective and context to their world, and I can see them enjoying the sense of community that comes from serving others.”
Talking about communication theory is easy, but Diana Dawson wants her students to “understand the value of being a voice for people without one.” As such, students were asked to interview and research an immigrant issue while also engaging in service-learning at free clinics, soup kitchens, or by tutoring children and adults trying to learn English. The goal was to get students to understand immigration from the street up as a complicated issue and encourage them to find their own political positions on immigration policy and reform.
Dawson also said that the capstone service project really sticks out in her mind as a powerful experience. Her class volunteered one afternoon at a local domestic violence shelter that serves immigrant populations. The volunteer coordinator at the shelter informed them to dress casually, but upon arrival students were asked to engage in more laborious work—pulling weeds, scrubbing toilets, and moving furniture. Dawson said, “I realized I was starting to be apologetic to [the students] because I thought we would be doing more child care and less manual labor. Everyone was hot, dirty and thirsty. But when I got home, I thought it was the best way to wrap up the semester because for a few hours we were in the roles of many people who live that type of immigrant experience of working tough, gritty jobs.” Students also grasped the concept and their research papers reflected the experience.
She believes that service-learning is essential to teaching communications techniques to students entering any profession because they “will have more compassion and more insight into the people living the problems that they’ll be addressing in the next generation.”
Dawson encourages other faculty members to incorporate service into their curriculum. “It takes constant development and care to produce the outcome you want,” she said. “But it is so rewarding to see the students opening their minds and hearts to truly learn. It’s what teaching ought to be about.”