Social Inequality Class Turns Service Learning Project into Culture Camp


Susan Wortmann wanted students enrolled in her "Social Inequality" course to gain insight on the social issues that stem from inequality. Students read their textbooks and listened to lectures, but Wortmann, associate professor of sociology, wanted her students to truly understand the issues surrounding social inequality.

She shared her goal with Sheila Vinton, an adjunct professor of anthropology at Nebraska Wesleyan University and executive director of the Asian Community and Culture Center in Lincoln.

Wortmann wanted something different for this class; a unique experience. Together Wortmann and Vinton created a collaboration with the Asian Community Center that would include the very facets that Wortmann was teaching in her classroom. Students would learn about the center's mission, services, and challenges that the center's clients face, and create a project that would further educate others in the Lincoln community about the Asian Community and Culture Center and the issues that arise from social inequality.

"The Asian Center is a grant-reliant non-profit that serves primarily low-income refugees and immigrants from a variety of areas who are, in some cases, fairly new to the Lincoln community or may not speak or read English or have limited literacy even in their home country." Wortmann said.

After becoming more familiar with the center and its needs, Wortmann's class helped to create what would eventually become Camp Culture, a day camp for elementary school children to further educate them about Vietnamese, Karen, Chinese, and Sudanese cultures through theme days. Each day centered around a different culture. Camp participants would learn about each culture through crafts, stories, dances, and food.

Before plans for the camp could even begin, it needed funding. NWU students got firsthand experience in grant writing and community outreach to further market the camp and generate interest. Wortmann said the fundamental work helped her students further understand some of the difficulties that nonprofit organizations face.

"One important skill that students had to work on with this particular project was dealing with ambiguity which manifested as a lack of perfect knowledge about what they were doing and whether or not their project would actually work out if they did it,” she said. “I think this really brought home how intense, complicated, and even frustrating working in a nonprofit setting can be."

Despite the challenges, students received $2,000 in grant funding from the Nebraska Arts Council and Nebraska Humanities. Camp Culture became reality.

Leanne Hinrichs, who graduated in May with degrees in math and sociology, recalled the sense of accomplishment she felt when she found out her class' plan was to be taken into action.

"I found that I really enjoyed the finished product," said Hinrichs. "To watch as our idea coalesced into a successful event was extremely rewarding, and that final step back to look at the finished product left me amazed at what we had constructed. There were a few challenges, like the specificity of the grants or the need for outside nonprofit recommendations, but as a team we overcame them all to put on a successful event."

Ten elementary school students attended Camp Culture in May. Vinton called the event a success and hopes to hold Camp Culture again next summer if funding and volunteers are available.

Vinton said the experience reiterates the value of service learning between the students who serve and the organizations and people they help.

"It's a great opportunity for both parties,” said Vinton. “It enables students to put knowledge into action and has a significant impact on the services we provide."

Service learning is a common component of Nebraska Wesleyan University's course curriculum. Wortmann said not only did the experience add depth to their classroom lessons but it also provided students valuable skills to aid them within their community and with future employment. Hinrichs, now an associate business systems analyst for ConAgra Foods, believes her unique service learning experience prepared her for her current work.

"This experience has helped me learn to not only think on my feet in the real-world, but has helped me learn how to adapt and grow regardless of the environment or circumstances,” she said. “I now know that an idea can become something tangible that can affect people's lives positively."