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NMSU service learning integrates communication studies with community service

When Anne Hubbell set out to assign a service-learning project for her health communication class at New Mexico State University, she envisioned a single fundraising event for a good cause. To take it a step further, the communication studies department head partnered with a local food bank and created a large-scale project that spurred a massive, multi-layered effort involving groups both on and off campus.

Group of young women huddled around a large box of food items.
NMSU students tackle another load of food in the communication studies department. The food items were part of the DRIVE HOPE campaign for Casa de Peregrinos. Pictured left to right: Anica Chairez, Teresa Conrad, Bethany List and Amber Olive. (Photo by Ashley Long)
Man stacking boxes in the bed of a truck
NMSU student Jason Brockett loads a truck with boxes of donated food items headed for Casa de Peregrinos, a local food bank. The campus food drive was made possible thanks to a health communication class in the College of Arts and Sciences. (Photo by Ashley Long)

"Service learning as a concept is the idea that students learn about being community servants, and what it means to participate in your community, and not just drive by someone who is homeless and think 'I hope they're OK.'" Hubbell said. "But then there's also this aspect that people don't know what communication students can do, and all the things they can contribute, and so from another perspective, I wanted to show people what our students can do."

The DRIVE HOPE campaign raised $3,500 and brought in more than 2,500 pounds of food during the spring semester, yielding 2,000 meals for Casa de Peregrinos. The class also offered ideas for rebranding the organization and secured a donated pick-up truck from a local car dealership to make food deliveries.

Casa de Peregrinos is the largest and only emergency food program in Dona Ana County, providing help since 1979. The Las Cruces pantry serves 900 clients while serving 1,100 from the rural pantries. Last year, they distributed a total of 1,062,040 pounds of food for the hungry.

"They took a class project and took it very personally as if it were their job," said Lorenzo Alba, Casa de Peregrinos executive director. "What actually happened is that they became part of our organization even if only for a semester, they lived and breathed, Casa de Peregrinos."

The 31 students were a mix of majors including communication studies, interdisciplinary and pre-pharmacy, a cooperative program with the University of New Mexico. Through the service-learning experience, the students not only gained practical applications for their studies, but also integrated meaningful community service with that instruction.

"Service learning can impact students on so many levels," said Christa Slaton, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "It can help with academics because students have the opportunity to better understand their courses by integrating their knowledge and skills through service projects. It helps with higher order thinking skills such as analysis, problem solving and decision-making because students are asked to complete relevant tasks that require them to use their skills. More importantly, service learning impacts character development and motivates civic engagement."

In addition to a grade for the class, students gained perspective and received a lesson in humility.

"As college students we may seem poor, but we're very fortunate to be here in general, and so we might not have a lot of money to give in that sense, but we do have time, and so we can give with that," said Bethany List, double major in communication studies and psychology.

The food drive had an initial goal of 1,000 pounds in two weeks when group members reached out to the NMSU community and held a challenge in the College of Arts and Sciences, where $100 went to the department that collected the most nonperishable food donations.

"We passed out the boxes to the departments," said Ashley Long, communication studies and Spanish double major who led the arts and sciences canvasing. "We gave them a flyer, labels for their boxes, and all the information they needed for that."

The chemistry department collected 504 pounds of food donations while the music department raised 177 pounds. Hubbell recognized these winning departments at the faculty and staff awards ceremony in April.

"As a scholar, I kept thinking this is diffusion of innovations," Hubbell said. "It started in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Greeks, then it morphed into athletics and then the Teaching Academy got involved, and then other people from other colleges wanted to donate."

The fundraising group held a wine and cheese event with a silent auction at M Five, a local night club, where students sold more than 150 tickets to the "Sunday Social Mixer."

"We went there because we thought that we could get a different demographic," said Olivia Lozano, communication studies major. "We've got a lot of NMSU alumni and department heads. Our own dean from the College of Arts and Sciences was able to come and see us."

The branding group came up with several innovative ideas to rebrand Casa de Peregrinos. After brainstorming, they abbreviated the organization with "CDP" and settled on the slogan, "Food for today, hope for tomorrow."

"CDP is more than just giving out food," said Nicolas Eckhart, communication studies major who graduated in May. "They are trying to get people to have food for today, but be able to take care of themselves tomorrow."

"The branding group brought some creative ideas to re-brand Casa de Peregrinos and our board will launch our new brand in 2014," Alba said.

The grant group was responsible for writing proposals to ask car dealerships for a pick-up truck donation. They landed a 2004 Chevy Silverado 2500HD valued at $11,000 from Danny Gamboa's Casa de Autos in Las Cruces.

"I'm willing to do anything I can to help, whether it is to serve hours, or in this case ask for a truck," said Nick Oliva, individualized studies major and NMSU football player. "I've gone as far away as California to ask for donations of trucks."

Rejection was the biggest challenge for the group, which Hubbell turned into a teaching occasion at every opportunity.

"I thought it was an opportunity for them to realize how hard it is to get people to donate and take time out of their day or give money, yet how powerfully important it was when they did," Hubbell said. "When somebody did donate something, they were so excited and so appreciative."

While Hubbell's department has always done community service projects, they have never worked on a project that was this big. She said the concept began with a conversation with Alba, concerning interns and the food bank. She and Alba then developed the project and presented the ideas to the class. Hubbell said the students asked to take on all four projects and the project "just took off."

"These all surpassed our expectations and everyone at Casa de Peregrinos has been humbled by their efforts, tenacity and success," Alba said. "We are proud to have been a part of such a great project, and we humbly thank Dr. Hubbell and her students."

"One of the most powerful things was to see people from across campus really participate and step up," Hubbell said. "It could have been the donations for the silent auction, the money that they donated, the tickets the bought to attend the event and the donations of food. So it's powerful how the community rose to the occasion."

Hubbell plans to keep the service learning projects going, whether it's with Casa de Peregrinos or another organization.

"It's unlike any group project and community services you've had," said Heather Quiroz, communication studies major who worked as the fundraising event coordinator. "As for the outreach, it's great to go pick up trash on a Saturday, it's great to go clean stuff, but there's nothing like putting food in people's hands."