Learning from Our Elders: Students, Senior Citizens, and Service-Learning

John Dewey and Paulo Freire wrote eloquently, nearly one hundred years apart, about experiential learning by describing the lifelong process of education (Dewey 1897) and the reflection and action that is inherent in dialogue (Faundez & Freire 1992). For Dewey and Freire, experiential learning is liberating and contributes to the health of democracy. In SOC 101, the goal is to help students better understand the world around them and to provide them with a language to describe their everyday worlds. Experiential learning can take the form of service-learning, which necessitates both action and reflection, as well as lifelong learning. What is service learning? For me, it is transformative pedagogy, and I found many like-minded faculty, staff, and administrators at Hostos who also wanted to 1) connect with local community-based organizations, 2) bring students into the community, and 3) enhance student learning by utilizing this high-impact practice. The incredible history of Hostos lends itself to service-learning, social justice, and civic engagement. A recent study, which examined high impact practices, showed that there may be a compensatory effect in which high-impact practices might be particularly beneficial for undeserved students; of the high-impact practices included in the study, service-learning and student-faculty research had the most gains (Finley & McNair, 2013).

Hostos became a member of Campus Compact in January of 2015. Campus Compact is “a national coalition of nearly 1,100 colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education” and defines service-learning as “a method of teaching and learning that enriches academic life and life-long learning by engaging students in meaningful hands-on service to the community while gaining valuable knowledge and skills that integrate with course objectives” (“Who We Are”).


We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T.S. Eliot,
Four Quartets

Dewey emphasized the importance of creating high quality experiential learning experiences; the mere act of having students do something is not necessarily going to yield results. Thus, selecting a site and making connections with the folks on the ground is, in my opinion, the most important step in crafting a quality service-learning partnership. Professor Eunice Flemister helped me make a connection with Patterson Senior Center’s site director, who was extremely supportive of a SOC 101 service-learning project for ESL/ELL students.

Patterson Senior Center, which is located near Lincoln Hospital, is a mere five to ten minute walk from campus. It is located within Patterson Houses, which are one of the largest public housing projects in New York City and are named after a Bronx County judge who was notorious for being “tough with tough guys” and giving “maximum sentences to gangsters;” the irony is that he “often leaned in the opposite direction by meting out probation or suspended sentences to more than 40 persons accused of homicide” (NYCHA). Patterson Houses stretches from East 139th Street to East 145th Street and between Morris and Third Avenues and includes 1,788 apartments with approximately 4,460 residents. The average gross income of people living in public housing developments is about $23,000 (NYCHA). I would say this is a different world but, for many of our students, this is their world.

The site director at Patterson Senior Center told me how much the seniors enjoy talking to young people and imparting their wisdom to the next generation. Students in the ESL program are working on improving their verbal and written skills in English and, in SOC 101, learning about their social world with a new set of vocabulary. Service learning must be meaningful, and in this case, students could meet a community need and also work on communication skills and applied knowledge for SOC 101 and for ESL.

In the spring of 2015, a class of twenty-five SOC 101 students, who are part of the ESL program, went to Patterson once a month for one hour and conducted life history interviews with seniors who frequent the center. Students prepared questions for the seniors related to one or more sociological topics being covered in class. Some recorded the conversations while others took detailed notes and then they typed up their field notes and posted them on Blackboard Journals. The stories were fascinating. Many of the seniors are African Americans who were part of the Great Migration and spoke with passion about racism, discrimination, culture shock, socialization, and the plethora of sociological topics covered in an introductory course. Many other seniors are immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and also struggled to learn English and figure out American and New York City culture at one point in their lives. Students were making connections in their journals, between the seniors and sociological terminology, but, more importantly, between the seniors and their own lived experiences. At the end of the semester, students compiled the journals and wrote a 4-5 page paper about the person they interviewed and presented their seniors to the class. The original plan was to present them to the seniors, but there was some scheduling issues that precluded the final presentations/ celebration from happening at the service site so I asked students for permission to bring their papers to the seniors after the semester ended.

S16 Newsletter_Hoiland article photo 2015-02-23 11.55 2015-02-23 12.10 copy

I had so much fun getting to know the seniors and employees at Patterson and watching my students interact with the seniors that I continued the service- learning project with a summer section of SOC 101. We walked through the sticky summer heat in June, laughed and joked with seniors and each other, and returned to campus energized. The quality of work that was submitted from both sets of students, an ESL group and a summer class comprised mostly of allied health students, was far superior to work submitted in a traditional SOC 101 course. The camaraderie among students and their interactions with me signaled a significant shift from other classes. Finally, the comments from the seniors at Patterson and the increased attendance on the days that Hostos students would be there also suggests the seniors benefitted as much as the students.

The T.S. Eliot quote embodies Hostos students. Many of our students know the “site” (housing projects) and seniors from their own life experiences; however, after the project, they can understand things in a new way. They have a new set of language to describe social injustices such as poverty, racism, sexism and also to situate their own experiences within the seniors’ experiences. Knowing is a process. Service-learning brings students back into their community and helps them to “know the place for the first time.”

• Dewey, John. 1897. My pedagogic creed. The School Journal, Vol. LIV, No. 3. Also
available in part: http://playpen.meraka.csir.co.za/~acdc/education/Dr_Anvind_Gupa/Learners_Library_7_March_2007/Resources/books/readings/17.pdf
• Faundez, A, & P. Freire (1992). Learning to Question: A Pedagogy of Liberation. Trans. Tony Coates, New York, Continuum.
Finley, A. & T. McNair. Assessing underserved student engagement in high-impact practices. AAC&U. 2013.
• “Who We Are,” Campus Compact. 2015. http://compact.org/who-we-are/
• NYCHA Housing Developments, Patterson Houses. 2015. www.nyc.gov

Prof. Sarah HoilandSARAH HOILAND


Sarah Hoiland, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Hostos Community College and she teaches courses in sociology and anthropology. Current research projects include a long-term ethnograpics study of a women’s motorcycle club, perceptions of quantitative /  quantitative literacy in urban, diverse community colleges, and an online assessment.

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