Posted May 13, 2010

The real world: Grads transformed by off-campus experiences

  • Credit: Betsy Manning / Temple University

While historians may look back on the 5,582 Temple undergraduate students who officially graduate this academic year as the largest class in the university's history, the Class of 2010 would rather you remember them for a different reason — and it relates to accomplishments that didn't even happen on campus.

More than any other group of Temple grads before them, the Class of 2010 refused to be defined solely by their achievements in the classroom. Taking advantage of new study abroad, service immersion and community-based learning programs, a record number of students had transformative out-of-the-classroom experiences. More of them spent a summer, a semester or even a whole year studying overseas than ever before. And more of them worked to make a difference in underserved communities, both abroad and in Temple's backyard. For many graduating seniors, these active learning opportunities have shaped career choices and made them more attractive to prospective employers — just in time to help them cope with a tough job market.

Officials in Temple's Office of International Affairs estimate that about 700 undergraduates studied abroad in each of the last four years, more than three times the number that studied abroad annually only a decade ago. Melanie Menkevich, a graduating journalism major from Philadelphia, was among them. During her junior year, Menkevich, who had never left the country before coming to Temple, spent the summer studying in Dublin, Ireland, before spending the fall semester in London working as an intern at The Church of England Newspaper. In her senior year, she participated in what she calls a "life-changing" service immersion alternative spring break trip to Guatemala, where she helped build homes and climbed a volcano.

"Studying abroad was hands down my best experience at Temple," Menkevich said. "It set me on a path to explore travel and service journalism. Studying abroad made me realize I could do that. Now I always tell students they absolutely, positively have to go."

The recent launch of initiatives such as the Diamond Ambassadors Scholarship program (2007), which offers grants to fund study abroad to students with the highest combination of academic achievement and financial need, as well as new study abroad programs such as a spring semester program in Oviedo, Spain (2008), have opened up more international experiences for Temple students. That's a good thing, says Rachel Brown, director of Temple's Career Center, because employers are seeking graduates with global exposure.

"It can be a factor that can determine who gets the interview between two prospective employees who otherwise have the same résumé on paper," said Brown. "Students who study abroad have to learn skills to help them navigate new cultures and new environments — skills they will have to use every day in the workforce."

Participation in community service projects and community-based courses or research has also exploded in recent years — with similar positive effects. Andrea Swan, director of Community and Neighborhood Affairs at Temple, estimates that more than 12,500 students a year, the majority of whom are undergrads, engage in some form of community service or community-based learning. Dozens of graduating seniors went on service immersion trips to aid communities in Texas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and beyond. Hundreds of students performed volunteer work as part of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service or student-organized events, such as "1K Help for a Day" (2006) and "Temple B. Moore" (2007). And hundreds more completed community-based coursework as part of academic programs associated with Temple's new Community Learning Network, such as Professor Barbara Ferman's University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia and the Intergenerational Learning Center's Project SHINE.

Danielle Mancinelli, who will graduate from Temple's College of Liberal Arts with degrees in political science and English, has ordered almost every dish on the community engagement menu at Temple. She went to Laredo, Texas, for an alternative spring break service immersion experience in her freshman year, then signed up to go to Tijuana, Mexico, the following spring. Closer to campus, she volunteered at the Police Athletic League. Since 2006, she has been working with children at Tree House Books, a North Philadelphia literacy and learning center that is supported by Professor Eli Goldblatt's New City Writing program. Mancinelli says there's a direct connection between her community engagement at Temple and her professional ambitions.

"One of the things I've had a chance to see is how the education system has failed children. In Philadelphia and elsewhere, many of them don't have basic reading and writing skills," Mancinelli said. "At Tree House Books, we did creative writing workshops and generated a literary magazine with kids. That inspired me to keep working in the field."

Mancinelli, who's so eager to keep learning from Temple service immersion experiences that she's leaving for a week-long service trip to Jamaica a few days after graduation, will be starting an elementary school teaching job in New Orleans as part of Teach for America. She believes the real-world skills she learned at Temple not only helped her land the job — they'll help her do it well.

"I want to bring the same kinds of out-of-the-classroom, active, community-based learning experiences into my own classroom," Mancinelli said.

Few things could make Temple faculty and administrators more proud.

"Our students don't wait until they graduate to make a difference — they're doing it now!" said Swan. "And by getting involved in the real world, they're empowered to make a difference when they leave Temple. Whether it's in their hometown or across the world, they're taking that Temple experience with them."