Making Waves Along the Bayou: Service Learning
and Career E-Portfolios
By DR. CATHLEEN BECNEL RICHARD, Ph.D.
Dr. Cathleen Becnel Richard is an Assistant Professor at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. She earned her doctorate in 2010 from Northcentral University in E-Learning and Teaching Online. Her research interests include academic advising, distance learning, reflective learning, and service learning.
One may think that Troy Landry, “King of the Swamp,” and Phil Robertson and his boys, Willie, Jase, and Jep, along with Uncle Si on the hit television shows, Swamp People and Duck Dynasty, are the only ones making waves along Louisiana’s bayous, but actually, it’s the graduating seniors at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana who are making the biggest waves in the bayou state. Students enrolled in the Senior Seminar are connecting classroom learning to real-world experiences by providing service to non-profit organizations and communities in a five-parish region.
The Senior Seminar, a capstone course, focuses on the development of career documents which include the Statement of Originality, Relevant Courses, Work Philosophy, Career Goals, Letter of Application, Degree Design, References Page, Resume, Service-Learning Reflection and Pictorial, Letters of Recommendation, Work Samples, Awards, Certifications, Professional Development, and Work Evaluations. The documents form the Career E-Portfolio in LiveText, a web-based interface for developing professional and personal portfolios. Folio thinking, which focuses on technology, pedagogy, and process, is a tool providing evidence of students' cumulative learning that addresses the breadth of knowledge through formal and informal experiences and how they have interpreted those experiences and made them relevant for themselves. Service learning gives students the opportunity to be part of a solution, to make a difference in the world, to use their talents, to exercise the skills they have learned in education, and to build new skills.
An unusual request was made of me one day. One of the archivists in Ellender Memorial Library contacted me asking for the help of my students in a very important project he was conducting entitled, “Oral History Collection on Veterans in Southeast Louisiana.” Budget cuts in higher education left him working on the massive project single-handedly. He agreed to work with me as a team teacher teaching the students involved the value of archives, how to conduct interviews and develop interview questions, and the transcription process. Upon completion of the project, the students who found interest in this type of service were required, as is customary, to write a reflection including a pictorial of their service. From that opportunity came one of the most notable service-learning projects that I have reviewed in my teaching career.
Louis had never been involved in a service-learning project. This was Louis’s interpretation of his experiential learning.
I did my service-learning project on a World War II veteran named James Womack who was born in Naples, Texas but now resides in Houma, Louisiana. This gentleman’s story is very interesting to say the least. He was stationed on a ship that was close by Battleship Row the morning that Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, December 7, 1941. He described how he could see the white of one of the Japanese pilot’s eyes because he was so close to their ship. Mr. Womack actually saw some of the torpedoes as they were dropped by the attacking planes. I am a Navy veteran myself who was stationed in Japan and traveled throughout the Pacific during my four years. I made several trips to Pearl Harbor while on deployment, so Mr. Womack’s story is a little more personal to me. I believe the men that fought in World War II are often underappreciated today. I certainly developed even more respect for that generation after listening to Mr. Womack’s intriguing story.
Every time I listen to any veteran’s experience with World War II, it always helps me to put life into perspective and to realize how fortunate I am today. I can clearly remember the first time I went to Pearl Harbor and saw the USS Arizona Memorial. I clearly remember seeing her under the water and the oil that is still leaking from the partially submerged ship. This brave man, Mr. Womack, actually witnessed this somber day in which Battleship Row was destroyed, and the USS Arizona was part of that destruction. I have the utmost respect for Mr. Womack and his brave shipmates that fought so valiantly against the Japanese Imperial Navy. This project ties in to the concept of the Senior Seminar because of the new skills that I have learned about preserving information and the skills of interviewing and transcription. Also, I have learned that good companies promote the idea of employees giving back to the community and that volunteerism is vital to society. This project has inspired me to make service to others an ongoing part of my future.
Teachers are constantly trying to get their students to engage in critical thinking. The area of service learning is a great avenue. I remind my students almost daily that they should not do projects that are the norm but, instead, to think outside of the box in order to stand out. When teachers witness this process, it is a teaching accolade. Celeste and Elizabeth did that when they collaborated their efforts to provide a very special service. They chose a very different service project, but got my approval before they began. I cannot think of a more meaningful experience than the one they leave behind as a legacy to this university. This is Celeste’s and Elizabeth’s interpretation of their experience.
For our service-learning project, we chose to clean the grave of Francis T. Nicholls, the namesake of Nicholls State University, along with the graves of his family. We learned all about Francis T. Nicholls in our history classes and why this school was named in his honor. Not being native-born Louisianans, we found his story to be quite inspirational. Francis Tillou Nicholls was a brigadier general of the Confederate Army who lost his left arm and left foot in two different battles. He served two terms as the 28th Governor of Louisiana in the 1800s. He was also Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Celeste and I brainstormed about what special service we could do that would leave our mark in Thibodaux. We visited the Nicholls burial site in St. John’s Episcopal Church Cemetery and were disappointed to find that the graves were in terrible condition. They had not been touched in years. We felt compelled to take on this project.
The Nicholls Family has no more surviving members. We power washed the graves, pulled weeds around them, painted them, and placed flowers. You will see in the pictures below a before and after shot. We really feel like we contributed to the whole Nicholls community and Thibodaux, and leave feeling very proud of our efforts. Preserving history is really important because we have toremember yesterday to prepare for tomorrow. None of us would be Nicholls State University students if it was not for Francis T. Nicholls. It is out of reverence and respect that we helped to preserve these graves for future generations.
This service-learning project ties in to the concept of this course because giving back to one’s community is very important in the workforce. Neither of us had been involved with service-learning. Upon completion of the project, we spoke to members of Phi Mu Sorority, and they were so impressed by out efforts that they decided to take this on as a project in the future. This experience has taught us valuable information about the importance of service that we can apply to our future. We feel that we have applied those principles to making a significant contribution to the Nicholls community and Thibodaux, as well.
Today, I use these particular reflections and pictorials as samples of the values learned from service-learning projects. No matter how many times I read extraordinary stories like these, I get goose bumps, and when I share them with my current students, they are always awestricken. In my teaching of the service-learning component of this course, I stress two quotations. The first is the Rotary Club’s mantra, “Service above self” and the other is an anonymous quote, “Fortunate are those who have learned that the best way to get is first to give through useful service.” I can’t think of anything more meaningful to teach our students today than the value of service to others, and I am grateful for the privilege of doing just that.
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