Students Remain Invested In Community During Pandemic

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Despite a global pandemic this academic year, community remained at the core of Dominican University of California’s work. Almost 600 students connected with, learned from, and worked alongside community partners throughout Marin County this year.

From working with immigrant families on digital literacy, to developing curriculum for a citizenship class, creating a neighborhood mural  – pictured above with Dominican professor Lynn Sondag (right) and Dominican parent Julie Coyle – in an area that has been a long-time target of graffiti taggers, and assisting Spanish speaking residents with access to health and rental services, the greater community was at the center of this year’s work, says Julia van der Ryn, Executive Director for the Center for Community Engagement.

“Our students connected with community partners and community members in the Canal District in San Rafael, Novato, Marin City, and West Marin learning about the structural barriers these communities face while also experiencing the generosity and strengths these communities embody,”  van der Ryn says.

Throughout the 2020/21 academic year, Dominican students contributed more than 22,000 hours of community engagement, working with 20 community partners through 25 Service-Learning courses.

“This year has shown us the absolute truth of our interconnection; the critical necessity to center and value different ways of knowing, cultural wealth, and community wisdom; and the importance of envisioning and acting on the knowledge that we can create something better together,” van der Ryn says. “While numbers alone are not meaningful, our Service-Learning stats represent our shared commitment, with all our stakeholders, to address pressing issues while also envisioning and creating a more equitable world.”

The Center for Community Engagement is the umbrella entity for Dominican’s work with community partners, including Service-Learning, global learning, internships, fieldwork, community-based projects, and community-based research. The Center was developed to ensure that students have meaningful opportunities to collaborate with community partners to enrich their education and contribute to the public good.
Here are some highlights from the 2020/2021 academic year. More information and reflections from Dominican students can be found here.

California/Lomita Park Community Mural Project

As part of Lynn Sondag’s “Art Fundamentals: Concept to Creation” course, Dominican students this past semester collaborated with members of the California/Lomita Park neighborhood in San Rafael to create images for a public mural project.

The California/Lomita Park Community mural has transformed a 400-foot long retaining wall along Auburn Street from Albion Street to Andersen Drive into a beautiful mural by a walkway that has been a long-time target of graffiti taggers.


“The course is designed for education majors to learn key skills of the artistic practice, as well as transferable skills such as creative thinking and collaboration that are essential to the education profession,” says Sondag, Associate Professor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design in the School of Liberal Arts and Education. “As a Service-Learning course, Dominican students work with community partners in a collaborative process that brings people together where they can exchange ideas and experiences.”

The project began when Nancy Vernon from Marin County Supervisor Katie Rice’s office reached out to Sondag, along with a core group of residents, to see if the community-engaged art project would be something for an art class to work on.

“During the initial planning stages several residents responded to a survey soliciting their input on the subject matter, style, and tone of the mural,” Sondag says.

Once the input was shared, Dominican students collaboratively worked on concepts for the imagery that conveys the beauty of the area’s freshwater marsh. With the students currently on summer break following the 2020-21 academic year, Sondag along with a core group of residents recruited members of the neighborhood to help paint the mural. Supervisor Rice was one of the volunteers. Dominican provided some basic painting supplies and gave its students a unique opportunity to create art that impacts the community. 

Civic Action Fellows

In 2020, Dominican partnered with California Volunteers of the Office of the Governor to become the lead institution for the Civic Action Fellowship. Although the school year began in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 14 Dominican Civic Action Fellows were deeply engaged throughout the fall and spring semesters, whether virtually or in-person. 

The fellows worked with community-based organizations such as Canal Alliance, Community Action Marin, and Ritter Center, as well as local government and public services: the County of Marin Administrator’s Office and the Marin County Free Library.

Work included developing curriculum for a citizenship class and tutoring Canal District immigrants, resulting in at least six new U.S. citizens to date. The CAF students also supported clients seeking a variety of services, including help applying for rental assistance and emergency funding relief. In addition, the fellows tutored middle and high school students during distance learning and assisted as teacher aids in Adult ESL programs.

Leyendo Juntos

Leyendo Juntos is a partnership between Dominican, Marin Promise Partnership, and San Pedro Elementary school. The program began in fall 2020 as a rapid response to the pandemic and its effects on already severe opportunity gaps in Marin County. Initially, the program opened to first graders but expanded to K-3 students, with about 60 students attending regularly. Twice a week, the Dominican students met with young San Pedro students in virtual Zoom breakout rooms, where they read, practiced comprehension, and played games together. Family members also joined in from time to time.

“The goal of Leyendo Juntos is to support and ignite a love of reading for the young readers, as well as nourish their sense of community, belonging, and support,” van der Ryn says. “We’ve also found Leyendo Juntos to offer many organic opportunities for digital literacy development, and our community partners in the digital literacy program have been able to offer several targeted interventions based on our observations in the L.J. rooms.”

Meanwhile, the Dominican students learned about the many strengths of the young students and their families, as well as about some of the structural barriers these families navigate. In collaboration with Marin Promise Partnership, Dominican has been tracking attendance data, digital literacy development, and engagement indicators, which will also be correlated with literacy and grade-level data provided by San Rafael City Schools, helping all partners understand the opportunities and barriers to literacy for the elementary school students and enabling us to provide real-time shifts based on the shared data.

In recent months, interest in Leyendo Juntos has been spreading, with requests to offer the program over the summer as well as to schools in other districts, particularly in West Marin where transportation to rich after-school programming is a perpetual challenge.

“In general, Leyendo Juntos helps close opportunity gaps for families who cannot easily transport their children to and from in-person reading programs, or who need their children to be at home for other reasons,” van der Ryn says. “In addition, the program offers equity and accessibility for Dominican students who may struggle to participate in community engagement in person but can thrive in a virtual context. We therefore expect Leyendo Juntos to continue to be relevant after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.”

Leadership Practicum Consulting

Students in the Barowsky School of Business (BSB) participated in leadership practicum consulting projects through the “Leadership and Teams in Organizations” course, which offered students leadership and management experience working in teams to complete projects for clients from community organizations and local businesses. These Leadership Practicum Projects are curated by the BSB’s Institute for Leadership Studies. Clients this spring were: Bee Audacious, Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership, Dominican Art Department and University Facilities, Epicurean Group, Latino Council of Marin and 10,000 Degrees.

Digital Literacy Family and Bilingual Support

A digital literacy family and bilingual support program was developed in the summer of 2020 in response to the need of parents from the Canal District who wanted to learn how to navigate their computers to support their children. Working with community partners Parent Services Project and San Rafael City Schools, Service-Learning faculty designed a unique way to support parents in navigating Google Classroom and other web-based skills, leveraging the cultural knowledge and linguistic skills of Spanish-speaking Dominican students. The students provided online and in-person support and, as the program developed through the year, developed a web page catered to the parents called Apoyo Tecnológico.

Dominican students felt a strong connection with Latino immigrants’ issues in this country as they have experienced the same in their families, van der Ryn says. 

“Being Spanish-speakers, these students offer linguistic knowledge and their deep understanding of the cultural and power dynamics behind the language-based support. Growing up in immigrant families informed the students’ approach to creating the tools to reach out to the community, such as designing the phone scripts for outreach, creating video content for parents, and articulating their visions of how the Digital Literacy Support program can evolve in the future.”

In Spring 2021, the Digital Literacy Family and Bilingual Support expanded to work with Marin Community Clinics/Health Hubs to support clients’ access to rental assistance. The cohort also created and implemented workshops for Canal Alliance’s community leaders. The Voces del Canal workshops assisted the leaders in their technical and social media skills to support their outreach per COVID-19 education and vaccination information.

Dominican students will continue their work this summer and next fall through a new partnership between Dominican, Canal Alliance, and Marin County’s Housing and Federal Grants office. The bilingual Spanish speaking Dominican students will support Canal District residents in completing the forms for rental assistance and other services.


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