On a fall afternoon in the Honors College enclave in Strand Ag Hall, instructor Dave Kovac started a session of HC 299 by playing Blood, Sweat and Tears’ 1969 hit “God Bless the Child.”
He challenged about a dozen students to hear all — every nuance — of the band’s cover of the Billie Holiday jazz classic. “There,” said Kovac, whose academic specialty is the observation and understanding of culture. “Right there. Listen to just the cymbal.”
The class, “Building Hope and Homes: Portugal,” is intended to prepare this group of OSU’s best and brightest undergraduates to give and get as much as possible next summer when they travel to Southern Europe to help Habitat for Humanity.
Kovac told the students that to properly respect the local culture, do the most good, and have the most educational and transformative experiences in Portugal, they’ll need to become better at noticing more layers and a wider range of information. Then he asked them to report on what they’d learned from that week’s homework, which was to visit some of the campus area’s espresso shops as observers of culture rather than as simple seekers of caffeine. It was immediately clear that they were catching on.
“I’m not much of a coffee person,” said a young woman of her visit to the frenetic Dutch Bros. on Monroe Avenue. “They have all these fancy names for the drinks, and it’s like they assume everyone’s already been there before and knows what they want.”
Most of the other customers seemed to be in small social groups, and they knew exactly what to say and how to behave. She was quite aware that she didn’t fit in, that she was an outsider. Another student described how his visit to Allann Bros. Beanery, just up the street, produced a similar result in an entirely different atmosphere. The setting was peaceful, with most customers sitting by themselves, reading, or doing schoolwork, but he still managed to accidentally violate the local cultural norms.
“I stood on the wrong side of the counter to place my order,” he said. “Everyone stares at you.”
Kovac offered techniques for “diagnosing culture,” including developing the highly valuable skill of asking the locals questions in a respectful way so “they can teach, not scold you.”
The Honors College service learning program, which started in 2013 with a trip to Romania, seeks to change the lives of its students as well as the recipients of their donated services. During three terms of the one-hour classes, students and several faculty members explore individual, group, and social motivations for service work; how Habitat for Humanity has created a successful model for mobilizing volunteers to help build simple, decent shelter for families in need around the world; and how the work they’ll do in Portugal fits into the area’s economy.
Students don’t have to go on the trip if they want to take HC 299, but those planning on traveling to Portugal are expected to take the class. As for whether the program works, there is much tangible evidence available. A blog from the 2013 Romania trip is available at honorshopesandhomes.blogspot.com, and there is this sampling of entries in the students’ group journal:
“Having never worked in construction before, there was a steep learning curve. Throw that in with language and cultural differences and you have a grand adventure. It was fun and difficult all the same time…”
“(I am struck by) the vast separation of wealth in Cluj. The restaurants we dine in are pretty nice … I would be out with my parents in restaurants like that! Then you remember that we are here because seven-person families are living in one room.”
(An observer’s quoted comment that it seemed like “a waste of intellectual ability to have our best & brightest students simply engage in menial labor,” drew several responses.)
“Oh dear. There is so much more to it than that. I would call it a waste of ability to spend four years in a classroom without going beyond. … This experience alone has done so much for the expansion of our horizons. Interacting with the very people benefitting from our labor allows us to learn peoples’ incredible stories and culture … We learn the depth of the situation of poverty and housing.”
“Umm, what? How about problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork, community building, communicating and interacting between cultures, the experience of a lifetime, helping our fellow human beings, etc.? I could go on but I’d get too angry.”
Story from the Winter 2014 Oregon Stater magazine, viewable in its original form online at bit.ly/osuhonorstravel
For more on the Honors College trip to Cluj, Romania in 2013 from the perspective of one of the participants, don’t miss HC alumnus Sam Settelmeyer’s account of the experience.
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