Service-Learning Students Connect With Community In Trying Times

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More than 300 undergraduates are connecting and contributing to the greater community through 20 Service-Learning courses at Dominican University of California this semester. Much of the work is focused on addressing the education gap in marginalized communities throughout Marin County, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic and distance learning.

Fall 2020 marks the 16th year that Dominican students have served as advocates for equity, working alongside community partners and community residents, guided by Service-Learning faculty. This year’s work is particularly urgent, as the COVID-19 pandemic is stretching the resources of many community and non-profit organizations.

“This fall, our drive is to continue to `show-up’ and provide support and advocacy for our community and in turn generate meaningful connections and social justice education for our students,” says Julia van der Ryn, Executive Director of Dominican’s Center for Community Engagement.

Van der Ryn and Dr. Emily Wu, Assistant Director of Community Outreach and Project Development, spent the summer working intensively with the University’s established community partners – as well as a few new ones – to determine and plan the best ways for Dominican students to engage this fall both online and, in some cases, in person.


The work included building several projects from the ground up, including a Digital Literacy Family Support program in partnership with San Rafael’s Parent Services Project (PSP). Dominican and PSP are now collaborating with Canal Alliance, Bay Area Community Resources (BACR), and the San Rafael City Schools IT department to assure that local families have access to digital literacy support. 25 Dominican students who are fluent Spanish speakers will provide training both online and in person.

“While the school district has provided students with Chromebooks, and local Wi-Fi access is improving, many families still face significant challenges when it comes to the digital divide,” says Balandra Fregoso, Executive Director of Parent Services Project.

Some parents who have never before opened a laptop need to learn the basics, including how to turn on and charge a computer. Others need guidance on accessing Google classroom and Zoom. Language barriers also make it harder for parents to connect with their child’s teacher in order to discuss how to support learning at home.

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“The ongoing challenges for many Canal families is a fundamental lack of experience using computers. While there are resources available, there is a gap between the people who most need them and the skills required to access them,” says Andrew Raphael PSP’s Family Engagement and Parent Leadership Coordinator. “The pandemic has taken away their voice and their ability to advocate for their children. Learning these skills is the first step to recovering their voice.”

The Dominican students have started to meet with an existing network of PSP parent leaders via Zoom in order to better understand digital challenges and determine the levels of assistance needed by local families in order to develop a digital curriculum. The students also are developing a script that will be used in outreach to local parents who have been referred to PSP and Dominican by Canal Alliance and San Rafael City Schools Family Centers.

The goal is to greatly increase the capacity to support parents once they have the basic skills currently being taught in person in small groups. Once parents can access Zoom through the Chromebooks and participate in virtual sessions, the curriculum will continue to evolve based on parents’ skill level and questions.

PSP has already started to see important gains made since the collaboration with Dominican students began earlier this month. Recently the PSP parent leaders joined a Zoom call and went into breakout rooms with the Dominican students to learn how to navigate Google classroom.

Silvia Gramajo Mazariegos ’23, a Psychology and Social Justice double major, already values her interactions with local families.

“Today we worked as a group to create a script outline for when we contact family members to ask if they would like to be a part of the program,” Silvia says. “We got to meet with one mother who is part of the program who was honestly really sweet. I could tell that what we were doing made her happy. We were able to teach her how to take screenshots and reposition applications on her dock. It really brought me joy whenever she would accomplish something and say ‘yay I'm so happy, this is amazing’ all while having a smile on her face.”

Leydi Lopez ’23, a Global Public Health major, said Dominican’s bi-lingual Spanish speaking students are a critical component of this new partnership.

“Now more than ever we need to contribute to the future of POC. Because if we think we’ve had it tough, they are having it tougher now,” Leydi says. “We bilingual Spanish speakers can serve as a bridge to these parents and youth who are facing difficulty with language, culture and technology, which is a huge gap that is widening with COVID-19.”

Other Service-Learning classes and projects this fall:

  • Two honors classes led by Thomas Burke, Assistant Professor of Literature & Languages and Social & Cultural Studies in the School of Liberal Arts and Education, will focus on race and representation in children’s literature. Burke has partnered with the Marin County Library Reading Buddies program, pairing 38 students virtually with 38 youth in Marin City, Novato, and Point Reyes Station to read together weekly in a program aimed at improving literacy and closing the education gap in marginalized schools and communities in Marin.
  •  Dr. Cynthia Taylor, Assistant Professor of History, and Dr. Emily Wu have partnered with 10,000 Degrees to pilot cultural humility training and develop a cultural humility workshop. The workshop is based on a module created by Wu and Stephany Vallejo, a recent graduate of Dominican’s MS in Education program. 10,000 Degrees academic support volunteers are matched with Dr. Taylor’s students to explore their intergenerational perspectives on structural racism and power dynamics in our society that also manifest in K-12 classrooms.
  • Lynn Sondag, Associate Professor of Art, and her “Honors Community Engaged Art” class are partnering with Next Generation Scholars to work with seventh grade students to create public art that represents the richness and importance of different cultural identities and voices in the context of current issues. The project involves creating eight different artworks that will be installed onto several empty storefront windows along Fourth Street in Downtown San Rafael in November.
  • Thirty-three Dominican students are working as virtual teachers’ aids and individual conversation partners this semester in the Canal Alliance's Adult ESL program, which has moved to an online format.
  •  Students in an “Ethics of Citizenship and Immigration” class are working with Canal Alliance on voter registration and education. They will work alongside students in the Canal Alliance college program to create videos to promote the importance of voting and support online registration in the 18-24 Latinx demographic, currently one of the most under-registered demographic of voters.
  •  Twice a week Dominican students will spend an hour reading to San Pedro Elementary School first graders as part of the San Pedro Elementary School, Marin Promise Partnership, and Parent Services Project Raising-a-Reader Leyendo Juntos/Reading Together program. 

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