Urban Learning Initiative

Learning from - and with - the community
around us

By Jim Smith

Urban learning opportunities. Community learning initiatives. Whatever you want to call them, Elinor Jacobson recalls that when she came to Trinity in 1996, as director of community service, the College didn't offer many. Though a few members of the faculty were collaborating with community partners, the concept had barely taken root. “A relative handful of faculty members were engaging students in hands-on learning in the community,” Jacobson recalls.

That was six years ago. Today, the notion of learning from the community has become so important that Jacobson's new title is coordinator of urban learning initiatives. It's a position created as part of the $5.1-million grant Trinity received from the Kellogg Foundation in 1998 to create what former president Evan Dobelle described as “an extended community of learning.”

Now Jacobson's job is to keep track of the College's rapidly expanding slate of urban learning activities. Just how broad is that array? Across the curriculum, there is currently only one discipline that does not offer some urban learning programs.

In fact, more than 100 courses, at least 30 of which are offered annually, involve some degree of community experiential learning. And Trinity has entered into partnerships with dozens of organizations in every corner of Hartford to make those opportunities possible.

Only a few years ago, says Jacobson, the idea of urban learning would likely have been met with skepticism by many students. Not any more. Today, some 600 to 800 students register for courses such as “Introduction to Medical Anthropology,” “Environmental Chemistry,” “Women in the Economy,” “Community-Campus Exchanges: Linking Theory to Practice,” “Race, Class and Educational Policy,” and “Urban Politics,” all of which require students to learn, in part, through contact with people and institutions in the city.

Trinity's urban engagement is built upon, and in turn strengthens, the College's commitment to the liberal arts. The promise of a liberal arts education has always been liberation, the potential for individuals to free themselves from narrowness and ignorance in order to become productive citizens of the world. As Trinity has offered more opportunities to learn from the community, its attractiveness as a leading liberal arts institution has increased. For many prospective students, Trinity's growing national reputation as a center for urban learning has become an important point of distinction. And urban learning has become such a significant aspect of Trinity's identity that the College's Web site notes that “We believe that a liberal arts education is enhanced by connecting classroom learning with real application, and so one measure of the richness of our curriculum is its reach beyond the campus gates.”

Turning point

For Jacobson, the turning point in this evolution came shortly after Trinity obtained the Kellogg grant. Impressed with the ambitious scope of the Kellogg project, Atlantic Philanthropies also gave Trinity a grant to help integrate community learning into the curriculum. That funding enabled the College to provide faculty members with resources to rework their syllabi. Three years later, at least a third of Trinity's professors have made some degree of experiential urban learning part of their courses.

“Ever since we got the Kellogg and Atlantic Philanthropies grants, there has been tremendous momentum in the evolution of this concept,” says Jacobson. “Many faculty members have enthusiastically embraced this idea, and that has been key to its success.”

To help ensure that the enthusiasm remains high, Jacobson and philosophy professor Dan Lloyd fan the flames each semester by inviting faculty members to participate in brainstorming luncheons. “At least 20 to 25 people show up every time,” she says, “and the dialogue gets very lively.”

Lloyd, who thinks of himself as a facilitator in this process, calls these meetings “communal and collective.” He has served as faculty coordinator for urban learning for the past six years, and takes particular pride in the fact that Trinity has developed such a wide variety of courses during that time.

Equally impressive is the enthusiasm of Trinity students for the idea of community learning courses. More than 90 percent of students participating in community learning courses during the spring 1999 and fall 2000 semesters supported the idea of the community fieldwork, according to a recent campus survey.

“The mission of Trinity as a liberal arts college is enhanced through urban learning,” says Lloyd. “The rigor of our course offerings and the commitment of our students to a life of reflection are distinguishing factors. I think the best way to think about urban learning is to keep in mind that knowledge is the opposite of capital. It is enlarged through spending.”

Rapid progress

The metaphor that Dean of Faculty Miller Brown likes to employ when talking about community learning is “mosaic.” By that he means the remarkable array of interrelated programs through which Trinity is engaged with—and students are learning from—Hartford's neighborhoods and institutions.

“Our increasing commitment to this idea has caused us to address some important philosophical issues,” he says. “We've been forced to ask ourselves how a concern for opportunities to learn in an urban environment relates to the traditional concept of liberal arts.”

Brown is quick to underscore the distinction between Trinity's institutional commitment to the Hartford community and its academic commitment to imbedding the learning potential represented by that community into the curriculum. And he's equally quick to applaud the progress made on both fronts. Ask him for examples and he will quickly tick off a list for you.

There is, for instance, a new printed guide to Hartford, produced, with student assistance, by Ivan Kuzyk, director of Trinity's Cities Data Center. The guide aims to help students engaged in community learning activities quickly get to know Hartford. In September it was distributed to all participants in a new course called “Streetwise,” designed for students engaging in out-of-classroom experiences in the community.

Then there's MetroHartford Social Science Research. Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation, the program encourages faculty projects in the community that provide research opportunities for students in the social sciences.

And Trinity's partnership with the Hartford Hospital medical complex has opened a range of learning opportunities for students with an interest in health careers who work directly with physicians and researchers.

And the list goes on. In fact, it has become so extensive and involves so many aspects of the College that Jacobson convenes monthly meetings with a group of Trinity administrators whose disparate roles intersect in the community initiatives.

John Langeland attends those meetings because he is Trinity's director of information technology and thus has responsibility for all of the College's computing resources. His comment that “We are absolutely devoted to strengthening teaching through technology” articulates the magnitude of the task his department has successfully undertaken since the Kellogg Grant. While continuing to enhance Trinity's on-campus links to the Internet, the department has also wired the neighborhoods surrounding the College, giving Trinity and the community mutually beneficial electronic communications links.

Another attendee at these meetings is Alta Lash, director of the Trinity Center for Neighborhoods, which was created in 1995 with a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The center's charge is to link Trinity faculty members, students, and members of the administrative staff with community organizations and other local educational and research institutions to provide support for neighborhood revitalization efforts. Six years later, its diverse slate of initiatives reaches residents in every Hartford neighborhood. According to Lash, “The cumulative effect of the intellectual capital of Trinity's faculty and students contributes to the social capital that is essential for Hartford to be a livable community. Given the relatively small size of Hartford, Trinity's contribution is significant.”

This informal steering committee meets frequently to share ideas and keep each other up to date because at Trinity, progress on the urban learning front is no longer measured in terms of months or even weeks. It happens every day.

Beyond the curriculum

Beyond those urban learning opportunities that are specific components of the curriculum, Trinity's nonacademic programs offer a vast array of additional options. Quite simply, the Trinity student who cannot find an opportunity to become involved with, and potentially learn from, the urban community is probably not looking very hard. Just ask Val Ramos.

For the past three years, Ramos has headed Trinity's Community Service and Urban Engagement program, the post previously held by Jacobson. “We believe that through community service and civic engagement, students can become leaders,” says Ramos. “Our program gives students ways to become engaged in the full scope of urban issues—public policy, participatory democracy, management of civic organizations, engagement of citizens in public life.”

Ramos's activities support approximately 20 programs on campus, including the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group, Habitat for Humanity, Boys and Girls Club, the Lion's Club, and fraternities and sororities, all of which serve the Greater Hartford community in various ways. Coordination of student-led activities to support the communities is largely done through the Community Outreach Leadership Team (COLT), a group of 35 students representing the various student groups with which Ramos's department works.

To enhance the educational value of his department's work, Ramos invites participating students to attend a series of programs that bring experts on urban affairs to campus to discuss issues such as hunger and homelessness. “We make a significant contribution to the community every year,” Ramos says, “but we also offer Trinity students great opportunities to grow and to learn about issues affecting cities. These are opportunities for students to learn about the lives of others and to reflect on their own lives and futures as well.”

All these programs have focused a national spotlight on the College, which now enjoys a growing reputation as one of the nation's leading institutions of higher education in the field of urban learning. In October of 2001, Trinity hosted a three-day national conference on community learning. Each participating college sent a team consisting of a faculty member, an administrator, a student, and a community partner, and the majority of conference events did not take place on campus, but in Hartford's neighborhoods.

Reflecting on the conference and its significance, Miller Brown says, “I'm very proud of our program. I'm proud of what we've accomplished here in a short time.”


New programs illustrate urban learning's different faces

Two programs recently introduced at Trinity illustrate that urban learning means reaching and attracting diverse audiences.

The Academy of Lifelong Learning was developed last year by Michael R. Campo, John J. McCook Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages and Literature, founder and former director of Trinity's Rome Campus, Trinity Elderhostel programs in Italy, and the Cesare Barbieri Endowment for Italian Culture.

Open to the Greater Hartford community, the academy offers reasonably priced evening mini-courses developed and taught by Trinity faculty members. “The academy is founded on my belief that adult students of all ages have a passion for learning,” says Campo.

There is a wide variety of courses, including “Archaeology in the Mediterranean World,” a focus on the Mediterranean as discovered and interpreted by archaeologists; “The American Songbook,” a review of the composers and lyricists “that brought about . . . such memorable music as `Stardust,' `All the Things You Are,' and `I'll Remember April;'” and “The Origins of the Holocaust,” a series of lectures dealing with scholarly debate and controversies concerning the Holocaust.

Gateway to Humanities, introduced last fall, is offered by Trinity in association with New York's Bard College, where it was launched in 1995. Funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for Improvement of Post-Secondary Education, it is designed for Hartford residents who have not attended college. The program introduces students to some of the world's greatest thinkers, writers, and artists.

Participants must be at least 17, have the ability to read a newspaper in English, and meet federal low-income guidelines. And, says Denise Best, director of special academic programs, they must be willing to consistently attend classes and complete homework.

“A significant goal of this program is to build self-esteem,” says Best. “It's designed to give participants a catalyst to move on to further study. We hope that students who complete the program will pursue further education and will become more participatory in society.”

For students who qualify, participation in Gateway to Humanities is free, including tuition and books. Childcare and bus transportation costs are also covered. Students who complete college-level work in the program are eligible to earn two college credits.

A series of faculty papers discussing the College's urban projects is available on the dean of the faculty's Web site at Additional papers will be posted in
the future.

The authors and their topics are:

  • Stefanie Chambers and Clyde McKee, Hartford's Challenge: Reform of
  • Noreen Channels, A Historical, Educational, and Organizational Context for Our Urban/Academic Agenda
  • Hebe Guardiola-Diaz and David Henderson, Teaching Science in an Urban
  • Setting—The Environmental Associates Program
  • Alta Lash, Reflections on Urban Engagements at Trinity College
  • Gene Leach, Contextualizing `The Urban' in a Liberal Arts Curriculum
  • Joan Morrison, Teaching Science and Conservation in an Urban Environment
  • Kristin Triff, Learning from Frog Hollow: New Directions in Urban Engagement

Back to table of contents