Berks faculty return to University of Split, Croatia to see fruits of labor

Service-learning training had huge impact on University of Split
University of Split

Following their visit to the University of Split, Donna Chambers (left) and Belen Rodríguez-Mourelo presented their research at the 2nd European Conference on Service-Learning in Higher Education in Antwerp, Belgium from Sept. 19 to 21, 2019. 

Credit: Provided

WYOMISSING, Pa. — This fall, two Penn State Berks professors traveled nearly 4,500 miles to the University of Split (UoS) in Croatia and they could not believe how much things had changed in one year. The faculty and students had taken everything that the Berks professors had taught them about service-learning the previous fall and put it into practice – including converting a space into a designated center for service-learning.

This year’s trip, Sept. 7-14, was a follow-up to a two-week educational collaboration that Belen Rodríguez-Mourelo and Donna Chambers made in September 2018. The purpose of last year’s trip was to share their expertise on service-learning and administrative best practices with UoS faculty and students, as well as representatives from nongovernment organizations (NGOs). The Berks professors held workshops and training that covered what service-learning means, how to institutionalize it, how to include it in curriculum, how to create a service-learning center, and much more.

Rodríguez-Mourelo and Chambers had been invited back for another week this year, to review everything that had been accomplished since their initial visit and to train the next cohort of faculty, students, and community partners.

“The first day at 9 am, we went to the classroom where we had been meeting last year, and it was converted to a center,” exclaimed Rodríguez-Mourelo. Chambers added, “We were moved to tears!”

Student work area at University of Split.

When Penn State Berks faculty Belen Rodríguez-Mourelo and Donna Chambers returned to the University of Split in September 2019, they were pleasantly surprised to see the classroom where they taught service-learning last year converted into a service-learning center.

Credit: Provided

“Not only that, but it was organized and put together entirely by the students,” explained Rodríguez-Mourelo. She added that the students even assembled the IKEA furniture themselves. “They really took to heart everything that we were telling them: It was built by the students and is actively used by students, faculty and NGOs.”

Chambers stated, “We saw community partners, professors and students coming in and out. It’s a workspace but also a very comfortable space. It’s what a service-learning center should be.”

The excursion also provided Rodríguez-Mourelo and Chambers an opportunity to continue their research on service-learning. After receiving the IRB approval, they interviewed participants from the previous year to get their input on the initiative. Despite the fact the UoS was on summer break, 44 percent of the students and 100 percent of the faculty and community partners were available for interviews.

University of Split

Belen Rodríguez-Mourelo and Donna Chambers at the University of Split, Croatia, in September 2019.

Credit: Provided

One of the student service-learning project managers at the UoS commented, “The training [you provided] was useful to make everyone familiar with service-learning … The information was used to prepare our own presentation for the program. We will use this for new NGOs and professors and students. It was good to help us structure the program.”

During the first year, the UoS worked with five NGOs, all focused on serving people with special needs. The goal of these organizations was to increase their visibility in Croatia. Participating NGOs included the Association MoSt (Udruga MoSt), whose mission is to improve the lives of children, young people and those living in poverty; Association Our Children (Naša Dica), which serves parents of children with special needs including autism; Association Heart (Udruga Scre) assisting individuals with cerebral palsy; Youth Club Split (KMS), empowering young people through employment and social inclusion; and Association Toms (Udruga Toms) supporting individuals with physical disabilities.

One NGO representative stated, “We (NGO) became more visible, the needs of our members became much more noticeable. We gained rich experiences and made new contacts, helping us to establish new guidelines that will make our work better in the future.”

Since the initial training in service-learning, UoS has received three accreditations, each citing the university’s commitment to service-learning: one international, one national and one local. In addition, UoS has integrated service-learning as a sustainable and permanent part of the curriculum.

As Rodríguez-Mourelo explained, “The University of Split went from having five community partners in 2018 to having 25 in 2019. Another excellent outcome is that the students themselves have been so positively impacted by these experiences that they want to be peer mentors or work for the service-learning center as volunteers.”

At the end of the week, Rodríguez-Mourelo and Chambers met with the UoS faculty and shared feedback and recommendations. UoS faculty stated that this feedback was crucial and beneficial to their development and they hope to continue to collaborate with Rodríguez-Mourelo and Chambers in the future.

Penn State Berks faculty have a wealth of experience with service learning, which integrates relevant and meaningful community service with enhanced academic learning, purposeful civic learning and reflection.

“This educational concept has been embraced by colleges and universities in the United States for the last 30 years and has caught fire with European institutions of higher education in the last decade,” explains Chambers.

Chambers is the director of the Penn State Berks Center for Academic Community Engagement. She brings over a decade of relevant experience to the position, having served as the director of the Community Based Learning Center at Franklin and Marshall College for seven years, in addition to related experience at other institutions. Rodríguez-Mourelo is the head of the college’s division of humanities, arts and social sciences and a professor in Spanish; she also has a wealth of experience in administrative best practices.

Rodríguez-Mourelo and Chambers hope to continue to host regular exchanges of scholarship and undergraduate research with the University of Split, as well as other European colleges and universities. According to the Berks professors, they have been approached about bringing similar training to other institutions of higher education in Europe, as well as a high school in Sardinia. 

“We are ready to take these workshops anywhere,” stated Rodríguez-Mourelo. “We are excited about the possibilities. These partnerships also provide incredible opportunities for students to be able to connect with other students globally,” she added, referring to the use of Skype and Zoom that can give students from both institutions an opportunity to connect and share experiences. Faculty at both institutions hope to organize a student conference every year to highlight and reflect on their experiences in service-learning.

Penn State and the University of Split have worked as partners for several years. They established a unique collaborative relationship in 2016 when both universities committed development funds to facilitate collaborative interactions between researchers. 

“The service-learning training that we offered at the University of Split was a very enriching and rewarding experience,” commented Chambers. “We learned as much from our colleagues at the University of Split as they did from us. The experience will enhance my teaching at Penn State Berks. It also opened the door for the sharing of service-learning research and best practices on an international level.”

Following their visit to the UoS, Rodríguez-Mourelo and Chambers presented at the 2nd European Conference on Service-Learning in Higher Education in Antwerp, Belgium from Sept. 19 to 21. Last year, they had participated in the IX National and I International Conference on Service-Learning in Higher Education in Madrid, and that work has been accepted for publication, appearing as a book chapter in an upcoming collection of essays," El papel del aprendizaje-servicio en la construcción de una ciudadanía global" (published by the Universidad Nacional a Distancia, UNED).

“Our engagement in Europe was extremely positive and made us proud to represent Penn State Berks both in Croatia and in Belgium, where we presented in front of an international audience eager to learn from our experience,” summarized Rodríguez-Mourelo.

Funding for the one-week educational excursion was provided by the University of Split, the Penn State Office of Global Programs, and the Elsa L. and John W. Bowman Curriculum Endowment.

For more information on the visit to the University of Split or on the Center for Academic Community Engagement, contact Chambers at [email protected].

About the Center for Academic Community Engagement
At Penn State Berks, service-learning initiatives date back to 2010 with the Laboratory for Public Scholarship and Democracy and later the Center for Service-Learning and Community-Based Research. The center was recently renamed the Center for Academic Community Engagement (CACE) and is focused on social justice and social entrepreneurship, as well as mentoring / tutoring programs for the underrepresented populations of the Greater Reading area, among other projects.

About the University of Split
The University of Split, located in Split, Croatia, was founded in 1974. It has an enrollment of approximately 25,000 students in undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate programs.