December 18th, 2014 by Jessica McCaughey

Setting out to begin this essay, I felt more overwhelmed than anything. With a nearly infinite scope of possible topics to choose from, I struggled to find an avenue that felt right for me. Every idea I came up with felt inauthentic and unnatural, so I decided to consult my professor. Sometimes a fresh perspective is all you need; he pointed out to me a theme in my work for the semester that is so obvious I couldn’t believe I didn’t think of it myself: Community-Based Learning (CBL).

You might be wondering what, exactly, CBL entails. CBL, also called service learning, is an educational philosophy that seeks to connect theory and practice by incorporating civic engagement with classroom learning objectives. At Holy Cross, CBL can involve a project component or a placement component. With a placement component, students complete service in the community on a weekly basis, while project components usually involve consulting or other short-term service work.

For me, the past year has been one of self-discovery, and my experience in CBL became a significant part of that process. As I’ve looked back on my experience over the last few months—both in preparation for this project and in filling out applications for jobs and scholarships—I’ve begun to realize more and more the profound impact CBL has had on the course of my studies and on the way I interact with my community.

My involvement in a CBL course led me to becoming a CBL Intern and inspired the blog I started. CBL has given me the chance to exercise leadership and take advantage of the opportunities available to me at Holy Cross. It has intensified my interest in post-graduate service and allowed me to try on different professional roles.

CBL has been something I have truly enjoyed in my time at Holy Cross. I’ve taken so much away from my experiences personally, academically, and professionally. The CBL program, in my mind, epitomizes the cura personalis tenet of Holy Cross as a Jesuit institution: furthering intellectual horizons while working toward social improvement and personal growth, living and learning “the mission.”

In designing this essay, I have set out to see what my fellow students at Holy Cross think about CBL. I conducted a total of six interviews, three with CBL Interns and three with CBL students, focused on assessing how my personal experiences may or may not align with those of my peers. I will be looking at different facets of community engagement that I’ve extracted from my own involvement in CBL and applying interview and survey responses to that schema, hoping to shed light on how students experience CBL at Holy Cross.

Getting Started

December 17th, 2014 by Jessica McCaughey

I didn’t choose Community-Based Learning; Community-Based Learning chose me. When Lauren, the former Assistant Director of the Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning, came to my Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies class to explain the CBL placement component of the course in the spring of 2013, I had never even heard of service learning. I’d passed the CBL Office on the third floor of Fenwick Hall, but I had no idea what that mysterious initialism represented or even that Holy Cross had a program that integrated community engagement with academic practice.

According to the results of the survey I asked my interviewees to take, half of them shared a similar experience. Only three students, Annie W., Cindy N., and Alexandra C., knew ahead of time that they course in which they were enrolling incorporated a CBL component. Of the remaining students who were unaware of their course’s CBL requirement before enrollment, two indicated that foreknowledge of the CBL component would “not [have been] likely to discourage me from enrolling” while only one indicated indifference.

In the video above, you can learn more about how each student I interviewed first encountered CBL. Some have taken multiple courses and others only one. Some knew in advance what they were signing up for and others had no idea. Some tutored, others mentored, and still others provided companionship or other services. Some of the interviewees identify a past interest in community engagement while others associate their involvement with practicalities such as major requirements or replacing tests with a CBL project. Each interviewee approaches the question “How did you become involved in CBL?” differently, but each unique answer informs each student’s unique perspective.

My first experience with CBL unfolded in much the same way as those of the students whom I interviewed. As I mentioned, I was unaware of the CBL requirement before I enrolled. If it weren’t for the fact that Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies is a required course for all Women’s and Gender Studies concentrators, I’m not so certain I would have enrolled in a CBL course had I known ahead of time what CBL was, so I’m glad that CBL was forced on me in a way. It has been one of the most defining experiences of my time at Holy Cross so far and has taught me so much about myself and about our society.

At the beginning of my project for Women’s and Gender Studies, I was skeptical about how the site I chose, Let’s Get Ready (LGR), would relate back to course material. Being the all-or-nothing kind of person that I am, I chose the site that had the greatest number of hours per week out of sheer curiosity. LGR is a nonprofit organization that provides free SAT-prep courses to low-income students in the New England area. I thought I would try my hand at teaching a course on the verbal portion of the test.

Although my work with LGR was wrought with challenges that have most definitely put me off teaching high school as a permanent career path, this project marked the beginning of my commitment to and fondness of CBL. My teacher recommended me to apply for the CLB Intern Program (formerly CBL Scholars Program), to which I gained acceptance, and here I find myself.


December 16th, 2014 by Jessica McCaughey

Like myself, three of the students I interviewed are also CBL Interns. The CBL Intern Program requires us to be involved in community engagement throughout the year, so we’ve all taken multiple CBL courses and completed various projects. Of the remaining three interviewees, Alexandra C. and Cassie G. have taken two CBL courses each, and Taylor E. has taken one.

Of the students who have taken CBL courses, all but Jake M. have completed their requirements at multiple sites. Having worked at the same site, Luthteran Social Services (LSS), since his first year at Holy Cross, Jake has taken on a position of considerable leadership at LSS and has been able to complete all of his CBL projects there.

In perusing the results of the survey I passed out to the interviewees, I noticed that each of the students who completed CBL projects at multiple sites have done so in at least two different fields. The most popular field is teaching, but other project variations include agricultural work, mentoring, convalescent care, and freelance writing.

So, why is this important? Well, one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed my CBL involvement is that it’s provided me an opportunity to explore two different fields I’ve always considered pursuing in my future. For my first project, I worked with Let’s Get Ready (LGR), a nonprofit that provides free SAT-prep for low-income students in the New England area.

LGR was a big commitment for my first CBL project. Unlike other potential sites that would have only required one to two hours a week, LGR required no fewer than five hours a week from me. A typical week with LGR involved about an hour prepping course materials, three-and-a-half hours of class, and a 30-minute commute, round-trip. (I only found out later that most of the other tutors from Holy Cross were being paid by work study!)

In class, I co-taught with another Holy Cross student. A typical agenda usually began with reviewing homework (which my students would almost never actually complete) and introducing new concepts, followed by a break, then concluding with discussions about expectations for college life and applications and working on writing skills.

This semester, my CBL project has been a more remote one. For my Digital Writing class, I worked with the Sexual Minorities Archives (SMA) in Northampton, Massachusetts, on developing content for their website (set to launch soon!). Because the SMA is so far from Holy Cross, I was only able to visit in person twice. The majority of communication and revision work was conducted via email, which made it difficult to feel engaged in the project. This project was still valuable, though, as a glimpse into the professional world of freelance writing.

Making Course Connections

December 15th, 2014 by Jessica McCaughey

According to Holy Cross’s Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning, 91% of students at the College indicate that CBL has helped them learn more deeply than they otherwise would.

I wanted to explore the correlation between CBL and understanding learning objectives in the interviews I conducted with six Holy Cross students, so I asked each interviewee if and how CBL affected his or her interaction with course materials.

As it turns, it wasn’t a matter of if CBL affected how each student interacted with course materials; it was a matter of how. Students mention how CBL better equipped them to understand course materials by providing real world examples. This idea of “putting a face to the theory” makes these theories more real and more urgent, according to some of the interviewees.

Some mention how CBL mainly affected their interaction with course material in a reflective sense. Both Cassie G. and Alexandra C. discuss how, at the time of their involvement, their service work did not correlate clearly with course materials, but that by the end of the course they recognized the ways in which CBL bolstered their understanding of the course’s learning objectives.

I have had similar experiences in my own CBL involvement. When I first began working with Let’s Get Ready (LGR) for my Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies course in the spring of 2013, I was skeptical of how I would be able to connect my role teaching a free SAT-prep course to low-income high school students with the topics of gender we would be studying. As my involvement progressed, so did my skepticism.

It seemed to me that my CBL placement site shed light on theories I had studied in Sociology 101 the prior semester. Everything I’d been learning about institutionalized racism and classism and educational injustice was easily recognizable in my work with Worcester Public School students. But I couldn’t see any relations to feminist and other theories we were discussing in my Women’s and Gender Studies course.

I didn’t give up, though. Coupling my service with classroom objectives forced me to consider it from a multiplicity of perspectives. I had a reflection paper to write, after all, and I would have to come up with something. Class discussions and personal reflections pushed me to make those connections and see the theory in the practice.

Many of the interviewees also mentioned how CBL didn’t just relate to their objectives for one specific course; it tied back to the values and ideals of a Jesuit education on a broader level. Working with CBL encourages us as students to take our knowledge with us when we leave the classroom and use it toward personal growth and social betterment.

Below, I’ve included samples of original student work* to serve as a representation of how civic engagement can affect a student’s interaction with course materials. The materials I’ve gathered from the interviewees generous enough to share them with me come from projects for class. From my own portfolio, I’ve included both reflective writing exercises from classes I’ve taken and an application essay in which I discuss how my experience in CBL has impacted me academically and personally. Click on each student’s name to see the materials he or she has shared with me.

Alexandra C.

Cassie G.

Jake M.

Rachel G. (me)

Cindy N.

“As human beings, our fundamental values are the need for self-awareness, affection, respect, sexual fulfillment, and self-management over one’s activities.  However, in a political economy, people are separated into a social system of class, race, and gender/sex. This separation isolates everyone from each other, including those who are privileges. Even if the elites of the capitalist system benefits off of profits and the social system, they are still being damaged because of the lack of connection they have with everyone else. The separation forces them to be obsessive over work, managerial control over work, and restrictions on friendship, intimacy, and community. Moreover, the privileged class not only is exploiting the working class, but they are also harming the biosphere we lived in. It is harming everyone’s well-being and survival because a political economy with social systems allows the elites to commit unjust treatment towards “inferior” human beings and the ecological system.”



*All student materials showcased on this website are the property of the individuals who produced them. Materials may not be copied or distributed without the express permission of the individuals.

Facing Challenges

December 14th, 2014 by Jessica McCaughey

As a Community-Based Learning (CBL) student, I’ve encountered many challenges in my projects. Whether making course connections or struggling to understand social injustices, students who take CBL will invariably run into some bumps along the road.

I asked the interviewees to discuss challenges they’ve faced as CBL students and interns:

The responses tended toward two poles: logistical complications and difficulty accepting harsh realities in the world. Annie W. in particular recalled working with an autistic student who was failing “because the system had failed him.” As many of them mentioned in a similar vein in their discussion on interacting with course materials, reading theories about injustice or poverty is one thing. Actually seeing how these theories play out in the real world is quite another.

The logistical complications often can’t be helped. Things don’t always work out as planned. Transportation fails, paperwork is lost, miscommunications happen. But I have also experienced difficulty in processing the difficult truths confronting me. Theoretically speaking, I doubt anyone would contest that the world can be an unfair place. But knowing this and seeing the kind and beautiful people whose lives are affected by the world’s injustices are two very different things.

Sometimes, the harsh realities that confront students in their projects and at their placement sites don’t correlate as well with course materials. In my work with Let’s Get Ready (LGR), the kinds of social issues that cropped up didn’t always seem like they related to my Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies course. For my Digital Writing class’s CBL project, my work with the Sexual Minorities Archives (SMA) was geared more toward crafting an experience in a professional atmosphere than discussing the issues each nonprofit organization dealt with.

In class, we discussed our projects from a technical standpoint. We talked about different projects we were working on (other project sites included Jericho Road and Worcester Public Schools Transition Program), but never about the social problems these sites sought to treat. Talking with my site director and reading SMA materials, I began to notice more profoundly how unfair history has been to sexual minorities and other people who diverge from a perceived “norm.” This realization has been quite a troubling one, and it has been a challenge processing it on my own.

Though for Annie W. the classroom was a place for her to unpack her challenging experience, for me, feeling I don’t have a place to do so has been the challenge. The Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning at Holy Cross does provide a few opportunities to reflect on CBL experiences each semester. For anyone facing a similar challenge in their CBL class, I recommend taking full advantage of these reflection sessions. In my experience, though, these three, hour-long sessions are often not sufficient; I find myself hungry still for deeper and deeper conversation.

As a CBL Intern, I have the unique opportunity of taking a course next semester taught by the Director of the CBL Office here, Michelle. I’m looking forward to this class because I know it will provide the space for understanding and unpacking the disorienting experiences I’ve had confronting social injustice. Further, next year I am hoping to be more proactive about connecting with my fellow CBL Interns and fostering deeper discussion.

Experiencing Community

December 13th, 2014 by Jessica McCaughey

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: students at Holy Cross tend to lack community ties in Worcester. So many of us remain confined within the college’s gates, only foraying out into the great beyond for groceries or nights at the bar. For many students, this may not necessarily even be their choice, considering only upperclassmen are allowed to keep cars on campus and cabs can be quite expensive.

What’s more, it is a noticeable tendency of students here to not only avoid the Worcester community but to look down on it from our ivory tower on “the Hill.” My first year here, I operated in much the same way. But as I reflected on my experience with Community-Based Learning (CBL) at the end of my sophomore year, I realized that CBL had done so much more for me than simply concretize various learning objectives. It taught me the value of participating in a community.

If you’ll allow me to generalize for a moment, it is my experience that Holy Cross students on the whole treat Worcester as a city they visit between summer and winter holidays. For me, CBL broke me of this mindset and showed me what a truly beautiful community Worcester is. I was curious to see how my interviewees felt CBL shaped their experiences of Worcester as a community, and their answers were fairly consistent with mine:

Each student reflects on how CBL has impacted the way they encounter Worcester as a community. Though every answer tackles the question uniquely, as a whole they point toward the same conclusion: I am not the only one whose experience of community in Worcester has been affected for the better by CBL. Even Cindy N., a Worcester native, discusses how adopting a different position to the community in her service has helped her better understand and appreciate Worcester.

My experience of community through CBL inspired me to delve into the culture of Worcester this semester via my blog. Each week, I made it my goal to try something new in Worcester by way of introducing myself to the city. So far, I have become much more familiar with navigating my way through Worcester, a city previously very confusing to me.


Lasting Impacts

December 12th, 2014 by Jessica McCaughey

Community-Based Learning (CBL) is a unique pedagogical philosophy in that it couples hands-on, professional experience with classroom learning. Students gain experience working with nonprofit organizations in a variety of fields and receive course credit for their experience. Personally, CBL has had a lasting impact on the course of my career, both at Holy Cross and in what I hope to do after Holy Cross. I was curious to see if any of the students I interviewed were similarly impacted by their experiences.

All but one indicated that CBL has impacted their plans for after graduation in one way or another. Because Taylor E., a graduating senior, took his first CBL course this semester, it makes sense that it did not affect his potential pursuits after graduation. The other students’ CBL involvement has affected their post-grad plans both directly and indirectly.

Both Annie W. and Jake M. describe how CBL impacted their expected career path after graduation. Annie W.’s experience working with an autistic student contributed to her desire to teach special education next year. Jake M.’s firsthand experience with unaccompanied refugee minors has inspired him to shape his desired career path into a more humanitarian mold. Alexandra C. had a less transformative experience with her CBL, detailing that rather than altering her plans for after graduation, the skills she exercised in CBL will be of use to her in her fields of interest. More indirectly speaking, CBL affected Cindy N. and Cassie G.’s plans for after graduation by helping them figure out what they don’t want to do.

CBL has affected my hopes for after graduation as well as my current path of study in more direct than indirect ways. While working with Let’s Get Ready (LGR) inspired my interest in educational injustice and my desire to use my own education toward a socially productive end, it also taught me that teaching high school students might not be the best career path for me (as it turns out, I tend to lack charisma in a classroom setting).

But on the whole, CBL has inspired me to become a more involved student at Holy Cross. After my first experience in a CBL course in the spring of 2013, I applied to be a CBL Intern. When I was accepted to the Intern Program, my desire to get involved with the program prompted me to take on the leadership position of Marketing Coordinator. Though only in a modest way, I’ve been able to contribute to the Intern Program through initiatives like producing CBL Intern T-shirts and starting a CBL blog.

CBL has also piqued my interest in potentially doing a post-graduate service year (or two). I’ve always planned on grad school, and I know that if it were not for CBL, post-graduate service is something I would not even be considering. For me, CBL has been a source of motivation for me both in my career at Holy Cross and in my plans for the long term.

Is CBL Worth It?

December 11th, 2014 by Jessica McCaughey

Setting out to begin this essay project, my original aim was to explore whether or not the value of a CBL experience outweighed the added time commitment. Although professors who add CBL components to courses reduce the amount of weekly preparatory work for class to account for added time, I wondered if despite this, CBL requirements might still seem to be an added burden to the already heavy workloads of Holy Cross students.

As I was conducting interviews, though, most of the students didn’t seem to feel that CBL impinged upon their schedules or schoolwork. They tended to recognize that professors cut down on outside work to make room for CBL. That being said, I still wanted to know if, to them, CBL was worth it.

The responses yielded a unilateral “yes.” Like me, these students feel that, if one is so inclined, the experiences gleaned from a CBL placement or project are an incredibly valuable part of their education at Holy Cross.

Interview Gallery

December 10th, 2014 by Jessica McCaughey