GERONTOLOGY CLASS AT MESSIAH COLLEGE A LIFE-CHANGER FOR SOME
Elder Service Program Receives National Award
Many students enroll in the Sociology of Aging class at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA just to fulfill a requirement for their major. For a number, however, Gerontology 232 becomes a life-changing experience.
“I’ve had some students, who never thought they’d want a career with older adults, change their career path,” says Dr. Raeann R. Hamon, distinguished professor of family science and gerontology at Messiah College.
For the past 15 years Hamon has integrated into GERO 232 something she created called the Elder Service Partner Program. Students are paired with a person over the age of 65 to complete two kinds of service projects.
First, students volunteer for 12 hours during the semester with their partners at local food pantries, nursing homes, soup kitchens, churches, synagogues, pregnancy centers, service organizations or other non-profits. Second, they conduct interviews with their partners to create a chapter of their life story which is presented to the partners at a celebratory reception on campus at the end of the semester.
This type of active learning model has proven so successful at Messiah that the Elder Service Partner Program has just been named a national “Program of Distinction” by Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization for children, youth and older adults. The award is considered the intergenerational community’s “seal of approval.”
“This designation means so much to me,” says Dr. Hamon. “I value the Elder Service Partners (ESPs) as co-instructors in this course. They teach my students things about aging and living that I could never do in the classroom alone.”
One reason why the program succeeds is that there are goals for the students and the elders. The students must:
* Competently, responsibly and directly interact with the Elder Service Partners in the community;
* Practically apply gerontological information when interacting with them, thereby making connections between classroom learning and real life;
* Develop a sense of civic and social responsibility;
* Challenge stereotypes about old age, the aging process and older adults;
* Gain an appreciation for relationships with older adults;
* Advance their interviewing skills;
* Foster a more meaningful personal relationship with an older adult.
That last requirement is sometimes unsettling to college-age students. “It is nerve-wracking to build a relationship with an older adult when I am generally (only) used to knowing and meeting older adults in the context of my family,” one student told Dr. Hamon.
There are about 30 Elder Service Partners each semester and they have goals also. Their charge is to:
* Mentor a young adult and experience intergenerational connection;
* Reinforce the value of civic engagement and enhance civic responsibility in the younger generation;
* Reflect on their own lives and share life lessons through reminiscence;
* Develop a more meaningful, personal relationship with a young adult.
It is not hard to find the 30 ESPs each semester, Dr. Hamon says. A variety of civic, social and religious organizations are tapped as well as local retirement communities. Word of mouth also helps. “We tend to achieve greater racial and socioeconomic diversity when we reach out to ESPs from religious communities in Harrisburg, so we are sure to do so,” she says.
“One of my greatest pleasures is seeing the meaningful relationships that develop between the generations as a result of this program,” notes Dr. Hamon. “I literally am moved to tears at the celebratory reception…when the students and ESPs share what their relationships have meant to them.”
“The students are surprised about how much they have in common with someone generations older than themselves. I think they are also somewhat surprised at how much they genuinely enjoyed spending time together and they wisdom they can glean.”
There are logistical challenges to creating a learning experience such as this. Transportation and scheduling are two factors. It would be easier just to teach the class from a podium at the front of the room. But not, Dr. Hamon knows, nearly as effective.
“Service learning programs such as this one take a tremendous amount of additional energy and work to make them run successfully, she says. “With some small supports from the college which help to sustain it, I find this and other ‘experiential’ programs well worth the effort. They are extremely successful in helping students to learn.”
Dr. Hamon collects evaluations from students and Elder Service Partners at the end of each semester, “so that I know how to improve the program.”
In an evaluation, one Messiah student summed up the views of many about GERO 232: “Participating in the ESP program made me realize that becoming old is not something to dread.” Said another, “Working with an older adult opened my eyes to what it is like to age successfully.”