Can community-based learning change the nature of higher education? Or, more modestly, help sustain democracy?


Can community-based learning change the nature of higher education? Or, more modestly, help sustain democracy?

For more than two decades, Santa Clara has been at the forefront of work in community-based learning (CBL), with the Arrupe Partnerships for Community-based Learning playing a key role. Given the University’s pioneering work in this area, in March SCU’s Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education hosted a conference on “Callings: Finding Vocation through Community-based Learning.” President Paul Locatelli, S.J., laid out the basic premise underscoring the conference in his remarks: “It’s clear,” he said, “that community-based learning and immersion trips provide powerful experiences for fostering vocation among our students.” But how? Scholars from across the country and members of the community-at-large set out to answer that. At the close of the conference, at a roundtable discussion co-sponsored by Santa Clara Magazine, panelists looked at the challenges facing CBL inside the academy and out—and the essential role it can play when it comes to sustaining higher education and a functioning democracy. Here are edited excerpts.

Participating in the discussion:

Luis Calero, S.J.

Luis Calero, S.J., associate professor of anthropology and a Bannan senior fellow at the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at SCU. Among his many center duties, he co-directs an annual faculty/staff immersion to El Salvador.

Hilary Barroga,

Hilary Barroga ’99, director of compliance for EHC LifeBuilders, which provides shelter, housing, and supportive services for the homeless in Silicon Valley. She also serves as a volunteer mediator with the County of Santa Clara’s Dispute Resolution Program and on the steering committee of Santa Clara University’s Arrupe Partnerships.

Richard Wood

Richard Wood, associate professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico. In his research, teaching, and writing, he focuses on the international organizational and cultural underpinnings of democratic life, and he is the author of Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in America.

Sharon Daloz Parks

Sharon Daloz Parks, director of Leadership for the New Commons, an initiative of the Whidbey Institute in Clinton, Wash. She is the author of Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith and Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World.


Think about the discerning that is taking place, not only in community-based learning, but also in higher education. In higher education, perhaps we have a crisis of leadership or, as Sharon Parks has put it, of authority; the university has become too much of a place where there is not enough vision. We have come to be comfortable with what is familiar; but we have to enter into creative, innovative ways of educating.

“The insight and engagement that community-based learning causes to happen is something that could not happen otherwise.”
— Luis Calero, S.J

I have found in my own teaching and community-based learning work that what we do in partnership with our own communities is regarded by some in academic circles as kind of soft, not scientific enough. We have to enter into this conversation with universities in a way that indicates that this is about educating the whole person and not just being in isolation.

We try to measure the solidarity gained through community-based learning in terms of what happens to individuals at the present time and later on. Who the student will become is not always very clear. The question should not really be, “Can we change the world?” but “Can I act in such a way that would be different from the way I am acting?” In other words, it’s a question of integrity, not outcomes.

I have been doing community-based learning for about 15 years in teaching anthropology. It’s a lot of extra work. But I have come to the conclusion that the insight and the engagement that community-based learning causes to happen is something that could not happen otherwise.


Open the door: In a collaboration fostered by SCU’s Arrupe Partnerships, freshman Lindsay Harke works with a girl participating in the Latchkey Day Care Program run by Mexican American Community Services.


I grew up in a very community-minded family. My mom is a teacher, my dad is a business person, but his business is to bring economic development to the Philippines, a much poorer country than the United States. In my family, not having a social consciousness was never an option. Coming to Santa Clara and being part of a community of men and women for others wasn’t so much of a paradigm shift for me.

At Santa Clara I participated in the Arrupe Partnerships service opportunities—though it wasn’t called that then. Listening to conversations about academic excellence, the question in my mind is not, “How can you have academic excellence with community-based learning?” but, “How could you have academic excellence without community-based learning?” Community-based learning taught me how to begin using what I was learning academically in the community.

One of my challenges to you—faculty at universities and community-based learning professionals—is to push yourselves to not just think about preaching to the choir. Engage the students who haven’t grown up in socially conscious households, who haven’t chosen majors or career paths that necessarily address how we can make the world a better place as a primary focus. The engineers, accountants, and business people can make a significant impact on shifting the way the world thinks. We just have to give them the opportunity through community-based learning to get there.


Stem the tide of merely consumerist values in higher education—that is the fundamental challenge facing universities around the country.

I am not at a religious university. I am in a big public university, the University of New Mexico, with 28,000 students. Think of that as the place where most American college students go. Here, you’re at the forefront of a movement to tie education to the community and to other parts of the world. You are an elite in that sense. With that comes responsibility.

Community-based learning and immersion experiences are a way to tie higher education to a much more constructive, much more fully humane value of higher education. Paul Locatelli has said it’s a strategy to build bridges between the educational and the social apostolates of the Church. That is, how do we make higher education deeply tied to the social challenges of our time, in ways that don’t conflict with one another, but are deeply creative?


College bound: SCU student and San Jose native Margo Consul, right, mentors a high school student enrolled in East Palo Alto’s BUILD program.

You are way past where most public universities are. Where I teach, this is nowhere on the agenda. At most universities, it is a perfectly good option to not be socially conscious as you move through higher education. And we’re not very good at changing that yet. But part of the responsibility of being on the cutting edge in this work is helping the rest of us find ways to write about this, getting this in front of your colleagues in secular universities to make it much more widespread.

It’s not a coincidence that you are on the cutting edge. You come from religious traditions that bring a language that the public universities don’t have. We don’t talk about the whole person, vocation, calling, and we sure don’t talk about solidarity. To articulate that language is important, to help create standards that all universities can hold ourselves up to gradually.

We are only beginning to learn about the impact of this kind of teaching on students. We really don’t know a lot about what difference this makes in students’ lives. We need much better research on this and to publish that.

But I would also cite the incredible limitations of our tools. If the real impact of this is on the whole person of the student, discrete models for how we study students are terrible at capturing that. We need good psychological tools that are being developed, we need ethnographers like Luis Calero studying this, we need to study students not for three months but for five years and 10 years. All that scientific language will help us tell this story much more effectively.

We like to think of our role as challenging students to a new kind of solidarity, to a transformation in their lives. Some of the agencies we work with are presenting to us a counter-challenge to break open our very core institutional identities as universities. That’s a hard challenge. We are very attached to our core institutions, like most people are. I want to embrace that challenge, but I also want to sort of circumscribe it.

“You’re at the forefront of a movement to tie education to the community and to other parts of the world.”
— Richard Wood

The political context we live in is one in which the very foundations of democracy, culturally and institutionally, are being eroded. The core cultural commitments about a common good, a shared destiny in society; the core institutions of elections that are clean, not totally dominated by money; of institutional life, family, universities, and churches—are coming to be so dominated by money and power that the future of democracy in this country is at risk. Churches and universities are some of the core bulwarks against that type of consumerism in America. It is possible to accept the challenge of community-based learning in ways that break down the university and make us something other than what we are truly called to be.

One of the bases of democracy that’s eroding is the legitimacy of expert knowledge. Expert knowledge is being manipulated by political and corporate elites. Universities are about creating legitimate expert knowledge; we want to preserve and defend that. Yes, put it at the service of solidarity and the transformation of society—but do not give up scholarly review and tenure.


We are invited to adopt a high-stakes leadership. Often one can lead with only good questions in hand: as poet David Whyte says, “questions that can make or unmake a life”—questions that can make or unmake a college, a university, or a world—”questions that have patiently waited for you, questions that have no right to go away.”

“The academy at its best is a community with a deep dedication to truth.”
— Sharon Daloz Parks

We turn to our artists when we are doing adaptive work because we are trying to create new realities. Social artists worry the gap between our present arrangements and what is needed.

We are worrying the gap that is represented by the increasing polarization in our culture. And the gap between liberal and conservative or progressive and fundamentalist, however we may choose to name them. We are, ironically, worrying the gap between scholarship and mission. We are worrying the gap between service learning and campus ministry. We are worrying the gap between academic life and the life of love. We are worrying the gap between the reality of living and a religiously variegated world. We are worrying the gap between short-term intervention, as we focus on undergraduate education, and long-term hopes and consequences that we want to serve. We are worrying the gap between what it means to be consumer and what it means to be citizen, between career and calling, between spirituality and the intellectual life.


Patience and focus: As an Arrupe student intern, combined sciences major Greg Phipps ’07 works with adults participating in San Jose’s Alzheimer’s Activity Center adult day care program.

The academy at its best is a community with a deep dedication to truth. When we talk about initiating students into the gritty reality of today’s world, we are a part of that passion for truth. We are working at something integral to scholarship. That truth that we find, as we expose ourselves to the gritty realities, is often made only more complex and deepened when we do bring to it disciplined, mindful, rigorous scholarship as we encounter the questions that have no right to go away.

The best practice of community-based learning requires critical reflection on experiences. The university has by heritage been a place of the contemplative life. You can get cognition without contemplation; you don’t get intellectual life without contemplation. But in a world gone busy, we in the colleges and universities have been swept up in that busyness. It’s the contemplative life that’s going to be recovered in the life of higher education. That will happen in part because community-based learning has required it of us.

Audience Questions

Q: Are we refusing to accept a dichotomy between academic excellence and community-based learning, which is sometimes characterized as soft? And the dichotomy of scholarship and mission?

Wood: At most institutions, one does it out of moral commitment. Most universities judge faculty on the basis of scholarship, teaching, and service. I want to protect the standard of scholarship. But one can link scholarship to teaching and service through community-based learning and knit them much more closely together. Reward those teachers who spend the time it takes to do good community-based learning.

Calero: On the one hand, we feel very committed to doing the best teaching we can. In my mind, this teaching happens when students go into the community and connect questions raised in the classroom with questions connected to their community. This is ultimately a question of integrity of the teacher leading the learning process. What I do, I do it not because I know that I will get recognition for it; I do it because I believe students have the right to get the holistic best education they can. It really becomes an ethical question for me; I cannot not do it.

Q: An observation I make not as a Catholic and teaching in an institution that’s not a denominational institution: I have been struck at the role that the Jesuits have played in this institution. In my own institution, there is not this way to designate somebody whose life is fully committed to trying to live out a set of values that the institution itself stands for. Talk about what role people like you play in shaping possibilities of institutions, especially in making change both on campus and in the community.

Calero: Jesuits are really guided by Ignatian spirituality—the work of the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatian spirituality does not belong to the Jesuits, it belongs to everybody who enters into that kind of reflection. I’d like to think that our strength on this campus and perhaps in other campuses is no longer the Jesuit presence per se, but the strength lies in the fact that we have so many partners in ministry, faculty, staff, and students who have come to see education in the same light.

We are very much aware of the fact that unless we bring people who are not Jesuits on board, first of all we’ll be short-changed because we are so enriched by our partners in ministry; and secondly, it’s a gift that belongs to the whole Church and to the whole human family.

Barroga: How, within non-Jesuit universities and public institutions, do we make social consciousness the social norm? It isn’t an overnight transformation. It’s the message spreading and becoming owned by all people, so that it isn’t this elitist sort of thinking but is just our way of being.

Photos by Charles Barry except Richard Wood, by Nick Layman; and Sharon Daloz Parks, by B. Scotia McKay
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