by Julia Poholek, Humanities Internship Program
In the grand scope of experiential learning, it seems that most courses are tailored to intrigue the student and teach them valuable lessons through on-site projects and interactions. However, the results of such courses prove to be all the more profound when they end up shaping the student’s entire field of study. Such is the case with LaDonna Gleason, a recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. LaDonna participated in the 2014 USF Undergraduate Research and Arts Colloquium, where I sat down with her to hear her thoughts on experiential learning courses and their potential impacts on students.
“I didn’t set out as an undergrad saying I really wanted to research suicide, mental illness, and the problems inherent in those subjects. I realized, ‘Hey, I really love psychology. Let me learn more about that,’” LaDonna recalls fondly. “I met a TA who said they needed a research assistant for their lab. Within six months, I was hooked.” Through this new, unexpected interest, she encountered a hands-on opportunity to delve deeper into the practice of helping those in need.
“The first field experience class I took was in the Fall 2011 semester, and it was one of the Honors College’s Geographical Perspectives courses called: Panamá: Beyond the Classroom, taught by Ms. Juliet Hill. We raised money for an organization called Nutre Hogar (roughly, “nutrition home”) that temporarily houses undernourished children under the age of five whose parents cannot afford to feed them at the moment.” LaDonna and her classmates engaged with the children through a friendly approach. “While in Panamá, we visited Nutre Hogar and got to play with the 50 or so children who were living in the lovely home that had been provided for them.”
Aside from Nutre Hogar, the class also worked with FANLYC, or the Fundación Amigos del Niño con Leucemia y Cancer (Foundation Friends of the Child with Leukemia and Cancer). “FANLYC is a recovery home for children who are receiving treatment for cancer. Panamá has many rural areas and FANLYC is very near to the children’s hospital where they can get the treatment they need. We spent a day working in the home, helping to clean the grounds and cafeteria. It was in December that we visited, so we were also able to help wrap presents for the children and decorate the room in which the kids were going to have their Christmas party.”
After becoming acquainted with the true nature of experiential learning and returning from her studies in Panamá, LaDonna soon found herself embarking on another opportunity to make an impact. She enrolled in a second on-site learning course in the Fall of 2012. “The second experiential learning course I took was also offered through the Honors College, and it was called Crisis Hotline, taught by Dr. Lisa Brown.” She couldn’t have anticipated that Dr. Brown would eventually become her Honors Thesis advisor in Spring 2014. Crisis Hotline was situated much closer to home than the previous course she took in Panamá—the on-site components of this class conveniently located at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, which provides a wealth of services and referral information to people in crisis in the community. “When I heard about the Crisis Hotline class, it was everything I had wanted. It seemed like a good way for all of us to get some practical skills in counseling and crisis resolution.”
Doing service-learning at the Crisis Center was admittedly a mentally taxing experience for students. LaDonna and her classmates worked the phone lines, taking calls from people who desperately needed someone to talk to. In preparation for this, students were taught special methods of communicating with callers through Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). LaDonna says that they were as prepared as they could have been, undergoing rigorous training before starting their on-site work. “First, there was a 30 hour online course we had to take that focused on sexual assault and victim advocacy. Then we were given 6-8 weeks of intensive training through ASIST.”
Each call that comes into the Crisis Center is a bit of a wildcard—the caller could be experiencing any kind of crisis, and it is necessary for phone operators to be equipped with enough training and skills to properly assess the situation and navigate the conversation. LaDonna remembers the heightened sense of anxiety and stress that could accompany each call she received. “There was a drop in your stomach, because you’d never know what’s on the other end. But we were so well trained that there was a protocol, and you knew how to explore someone’s feelings with them. Through the ASIST model, you worked your way through exploring both their reasons for suicide and their reasons why they wanted to live. Most of the time, the callers were ambivalent—they wanted to die, but also live at the same time.” She notes the tension between life and death, remembering how most of the callers had such conflicting emotions. “For whatever reason, they think of ending their life, but they’ve also picked up the phone.”
After being so immersed in community engagement and service-learning, it’s no wonder that LaDonna began to think progressively about her studies and start developing a research thesis. She turned to Dr. Lisa Brown, who had taught the Crisis Hotline course, and together they formed a mentor–student relationship. “I took the class with Dr. Brown—she was one of my best professors, and really someone I wanted to model my career after. She’s an active researcher in the community—a clinical psychologist who works in gerontology. When you find that person you want to emulate, you continue working with them. She said that she would absolutely mentor me. She was working on a project on the needs of older homeless veterans, and I had been working as a volunteer at a homeless shelter for four years, so she knew I was really interested in homelessness as a social problem. It’s really great to come into a project that had so much support behind it and see it from beginning to end.”
This would go on to become LaDonna’s project at the Undergraduate Research and Arts Colloquium in the Spring 2014 semester. With the mentorship and guidance of Dr. Brown, she was able to conduct and gather research on the needs of homeless veterans in the area. “I was making contact with staff at transitional housing communities and sending out emails—just finding veterans to participate. Close to two hundred had expressed interest, and we sent out packets (including self-addressed stamped envelopes to mail the enclosed survey back anonymously, a $5 gift card, and informed consent). We received 171 completed questionnaires. Twenty-seven had to be excluded from analyses, so we ended up with a 144 person sample.” With such a large amount of data and valuable answers to the unfortunate reality of homeless veterans, LaDonna presented her findings at the Undergraduate Research and Arts Colloquium in April.*
Because she became well experienced with on-site work during her time as an undergraduate psychology student, LaDonna is fully aware of the benefits of experiential learning. She encourages others to explore the possibilities available to them and seize every opportunity that presents itself. “I would definitely recommend experiential learning, especially when you’ve gotten your core classes out of the way. You get to step in and see how what you’re learning in the classroom is being played out in a real world environment.” When relating traditional classroom-based courses to on-site ones, LaDonna says that there’s “no comparison.” She explains how getting out of the classroom helped shed new light on the subjects she was studying. “I gained a deeper understanding of mental health crises. We had read about them in textbooks and the different theories and therapies involved, but it’s much different when you’re talking to someone who deals with things like bipolar disorder, anxiety, or clinical depression on a daily basis.”
LaDonna graduated in spring 2014 with a B.A. in psychology, and having completed a considerable amount of experiential learning, she’s now more prepared for the next steps in her educational and professional career. Her advice to those who might feel a bit lost in their studies and unsure about their academic or professional path: “I explored as many things as I could. Say yes to everything, and go after every opportunity.”
*Editor’s Note: Gleason received an OCEP Undergraduate Community Engaged Scholar fellowship. She also presented her research at the 2014 National Conference for Undergraduate Research at the University of Kentucky. Her poster was titled “Medical and Psychiatric Health Needs and Service Utilization of Older Homeless Veterans.”