Huebner: Dartmouth's Best Kept Secret

This add-drop period, keep Social Impact Practicum courses in mind.

by Julia Huebner | 11/9/17 12:30am

When deciding where I’d go to college in my senior year of high school, I did what most Type A people do: I made a pro-con list. Good academics at Dartmouth and my contender? Check. Good people? Definitely at Dartmouth, or so I’d heard. Service opportunities? I wasn’t so sure about Dartmouth’s offerings. I thought New Hampshire was a tiny, idyllic state, bordered by Bernie Sanders and Ben & Jerry’s. I assumed that diversity was nonexistent because 90 percent of people in New Hampshire are white.

Since coming to Dartmouth, I’ve learned that while there is little racial diversity in the Upper Valley, there is a wide range of socioeconomic diversity in the region. That reality, coupled with the opioid crisis that continues to plague the region, has highlighted the need and responsibility for community engagement at Dartmouth.

Center for Service associate director of academic and service engagement Ashley Doolittle noted that students do not need “to exoticize poverty for it to be something that you are interested in participating in ameliorating.”

“You can walk out your door and there are about 500 nonprofits within an hour of Hanover,” she added.

Some of those nonprofits partner with Dartmouth through student-run extracurricular clubs, like the Outdoor Leadership Experience and DREAM. While the Center for Service’s extracurricular and off-term opportunities are strong, the Center’s new “Social Impact Practicum” initiative is trying to weave social impact into the classroom in a program that could quickly become a selling point for prospective and current students interested in making an impact in the Upper Valley.

Doolittle, who helped found the SIP program, defined social impact practicums as “projects connecting community-defined needs with experiential learning in the classroom.”

Doolittle works as “Match.com,” as she put it, with community organizations and faculty to “find ways to mesh the two in a synergistic way that integrates [a capstone project] with the existing course.” Previous SIP courses include Environmental Studies 7.04, “COVER Stories” and College Course 18, “Impact Design,” both of which I took last spring without knowing they were SIP-designated courses. “COVER Stories” is a first-year seminar taught by environmental studies professor Terry Osborne that explores the intersection of environmentalism, power and privilege by partnering with COVER, a local nonprofit that re-roofs houses and builds accessibility ramps for patrons in the Upper Valley. In “Impact Design,” students researched the physiological effects of delight and were divided into teams, each of which created a term-long user experience for an elderly community member with dementia and their spouse.

Those courses’ uniqueness made them challenging, exciting and ultimately some of the most rewarding academic experiences I’ve had at the College.

According to Doolittle, every faculty member who taught a SIP course in the 2016-2017 academic year wanted to teach another in the 2017-2018 year.

Although initial feedback from the three primary stakeholders — community partners, faculty and students — was strong, creating the SIP program within the constraints of these three groups was a challenge.

Rather than approach community partners with student-generated ideas, the Center for Service conducted a wide-ranging need-finding survey of community organizations in the Upper Valley to gather content for social impact practicums. The center compiled about 100 defined needs for the previous school year, spanning 40 organizations.

“It was clear that there are about 10 community partners that are the ‘go-to’ for absolutely everyone on campus, and they are overwhelmed” said Doolittle.

The founders of the classroom-based SIPs designed the classes to reject the traditional “heart and hands” model of service, which suggests that service work is either physical or emotional in nature, excluding a need for innovation, problem-solving and strategy.

Students often lament the “Dartmouth bubble” of privilege and safety that we seldom leave during our four years here. SIP courses, Doolittle said, force students “beyond the Dartmouth bubble to the whole of the Upper Valley.”

“The data show that it is a really important culminating experience for students who are interested in the social sector at large — and even those who are not — who are interested in the really big public issues of our time,” she added.

Those issues will be explored in the eight SIP courses available this coming winter, including courses in the history, environmental studies, education and engineering departments. The Center for Service advertised the names of the winter 2018 SIP courses in an all-campus email last week and students can contact Doolittle for an updated list of classes.

As I take more classes, begrudgingly decide on a major and narrow my professional interests at Dartmouth, it can seem that the tradeoff between altruist public-sector work and private-sector, “soul-selling” work is inevitable. SIP classes question that assumption by melding local, community-centered experience into Dartmouth’s curricula that foster continued contact (and even friendship) with people in our area that last far longer than 10 weeks. For any current and prospective students worried about balancing altruism with schoolwork — and wondering if volunteer efforts actually benefit the people they are aimed toward — these classes provide a clear answer.