We Had Beef: The Story of Personal Growth Through the Community-Based Learning Program
One of the most treasured St. Lawrence University features is an infinite appreciation and use of acronyms for activities, offices, and destinations. The second distinctive characteristic of SLU would be its genuine interest in serving the local community. Being only a sophomore, I have experienced both of the above-mentioned aspects of SLU culture. I am a Community Mentor who is mostly referred to as just a CM working for the Community-Based Learning office, or better known as CBL. The University has established a myriad of volunteering opportunities ranging from farms and local school to correctional facilities or, put simply, jails. My job is to supervise students who chose to include a civic engagement experience into their SLU academic career through volunteering at placements of their choice.
I have joined a supportive team of CMs fairly recently. Besides being a liaison between community partners, students, and their professors and staying behind the scenes, I get a chance to be at the front line of the community service back to back with my mentees. Thus, on Mondays, we volunteer at Campus Kitchens for just a couple of hours. Preparing and serving meals for community members at a church in downtown Canton, I made a couple of particularly unexpected connections. It was one of those regular evening shifts at the church. It is worth mentioning that these meals are a way for community members to socialize, find new connections, and get a free meal - or sometimes the only affordable meal. I walked around the dining room asking our guests if they needed a refill of their drinks or an extra salad plate and was stopped by an older dignified man sitting at a table by himself. “Excuse me. What is for the meal tonight?” wondered the man. “We have beef and rice with vegetables tonight,” I replied with a big smile. I could only finish my sentence, once I heard: “WHAT’S BIFF?” In slight confusion, I followed: “Excuse me, sir. I just said that we are going to have beef tonight." “Ohh, you mean BEEF,” said the man on the exhale. It turned out that he picked up on my Russian accent. A lecture about how Americans pronounce "beef" turned into a friendly conversation starting from explanations of accents and struggles of international students and finished up with a discussion of a couple of topics in the fields of biochemistry and psychology.
When I looked at the clock, I realized that I spent 40 minutes talking to Andrew (the man). Not only that we had so much in common, but he turned out to be my friend’s professor for a correctional philosophy class at SUNY Canton, SLU’s neighbouring university. I was invited and attended a couple of his lessons in SUNY Canton this semester learning about some famous cases from the criminal world and practising my critical thinking skills in the class discussion.
In this way, my volunteering experience with CBL resulted in unexpected learning outcomes. Not only was I able to serve the community, develop personal connections with the community members, and work on my American pronunciation, but also learned a little about something completely alien to my Neuroscience degree field – correctional philosophy. Such experience reminded me of the fact that as much as you serve the community, the community serves you. This need is mutual, and these connections with the community are vital for personal growth and development of life-learning skills.