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Lessons from Life’s Laboratory

Communicating the Human Side of Social Issues: Classes take students out into the Austin community to see how the issues they’re learning about are being experienced by real people.

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Diana Dawson

Diana Dawson, instructor, School of Journalism

Diana Dawson has taught three courses grouped under the classification “Communicating the Human Side of Social Issues.” These classes take students out into the Austin community to see how the issues they’re learning about are being experienced by real people, often those who are the most vulnerable, marginalized and voiceless in our society. The College of Communication Honors Program Senior Fellows participate in interdisciplinary communication seminars that feature an array of special topics taught by faculty from all majors within the College.

On the walls of the Workers Defense Project at 5604 Manor Road in Austin are posters of Dolores Huerta and signs touting “Legalizacion Ahora!” Fists pump in the air as everyone chants “el mismo derechos!” (the same rights!) College of Communication Senior Fellows students are wedged into folding chairs beside construction workers, maids and restaurant cooks who have been fighting for wages they are owed but have not been paid.

Only a 14-minute drive separates the College of Communication from this East Austin community center and the traditional classroom from “life’s laboratory.” In my Senior Fellows classes, like this one on immigration and East Austin, students get to see for themselves what life beyond campus is like for people living today’s issues.

Senior Sameer Bhuchar

Senior Sameer Bhuchar (Journalism) works with a future Senior Fellow at Any Baby Can, a child and family resource center in Austin. Photo: Kayla Freeman

When I was a social issues reporter for newspapers, I wholeheartedly embraced the mission of shining a light in corners of the community that readers might not see without me. That’s where I’d found the soul of journalism. I’d interviewed a man digging in the trash for his next meal, followed a crack addict who wanted to stay clean through her pregnancy and told the stories of teens foraging for survival on the streets.

When I began teaching, I wondered how that experience could be conveyed in the classroom.  That’s when I realized that the Senior Fellows program allows both professors and students to color outside the lines, transforming the “what ifs” to “why nots.”

As I brainstormed with then-Senior Fellows director Bob Jensen, we realized that getting students out of the classroom would be a meaningful way to examine various topics in depth. So we created the umbrella title “Communicating the Human Side of Social Issues,” and decided to offer these classes in a three-hour block that would give us time to travel “field-trip” style to corners of the community students passed but never really saw.

For two semesters, I took students into East Austin, where we learned about longtime residents who were paying the price of gentrification. Our students met people who had lived there before it was hip and had formed a community but were now seeing family and friends forced out by higher property taxes. Those folks told them that the shiny new businesses might look good from the street, but the tacos and lattes sold there were unaffordable. As the students dived into independent projects, they discovered that most of the jobs provided by sprucing up the area actually went to people living outside the ZIP code.

This semester, we’ve begun looking at the experience of immigrants living in Austin and already have come to a much deeper understanding of the difference that a piece of paper can make in someone’s life. Senior Fellows have met other students on campus who study as hard as they do but under current laws face a future no brighter than washing dishes at a local restaurant. They’ve heard about women forced to work as sex slaves to repay those who helped them relocate to America to seek a better life.

At the Workers Defense Project, students met a father of three who has worked 13 years installing sheetrock. When he complained that the contractor refused to pay him the $1,700 he was owed, his boss threatened to call police, who would contact immigration.

“I want to come back and help here,” one Senior Fellow said, as she left the table. “I need to do something.”

We’ve added community service to our coursework this semester. All Senior Fellows will devote some time to a project benefitting an immigrant community. Some are working in free clinics, tutoring children and adults trying to learn English, or capturing the story of a nonprofit and crafting a mission statement.

Immigration is a complicated issue, and we encourage students to find their own political positions on immigration policy and reform.

But in our efforts to bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world, we’re hoping students become well-informed citizens and responsible communication professionals with a better understanding of those living with the issues we all debate.