Senior Josh Singer's experience as a Community Action Fellow of the College's Center for Service and Learning (CSL) is a prime example of what Oberlin President Nancy Dye calls "engaged learning."
A CSL Fellow since the summer of 1996, Josh works to expand and improve the College's hunger-relief service programs. He has worked two summer internships with the local branch of Second Harvest, a national, non-profit network of food-rescue programs. Last year he also co-founded Oberlin Food Rescue (OFR), whose first project was an effort to cut food waste on campus.
"We went into the Dascomb dish room at lunch, and we put all the food on the plates that was going to be thrown into the garbage disposal into a bag," Singer said. "At dinner we put the bag out where everyone could see it, a big bag full of food that could have been used."
When students explained they had little or no control over portion sizes, managers at the Dascomb dining room started allowing them to serve themselves. While the demonstration did not result in a total stop in food waste, it made a significant dent.
Campus Dining Services prepares meals daily for some 1,950 students. Aware that the portion of those meals wasted each day contributes to the over 40 billion pounds of food thrown away nationally each year, Singer suggested that the College link up with Second Harvest.
The agency maintains a three-county base near Oberlin and provides food to hunger-relief organizations that serve hot meals and prepare food baskets for 30,000 people monthly, of which an estimated 40 to 45 percent are children.
Marriott International, which operates Campus Dining Services, agreed to Singer's proposal, and last December, Oberlin became the county's first large-scale food preparer to donate unserved, prepared food for hunger relief.
At about the same time, Second Harvest asked Singer to help the agency by conducting a survey of area hunger as part of a national study to determine baseline statistics before welfare reforms went into effect.
The project was organized over winter term as a sociology practicum sponsored by Assistant Professor Daphne Johns, and early in the second semester Singer and four other students fanned out over the area to interview some 130 hunger-program recipients.
The experience was an eye-opener.
"A lot of times we got hostile reactions--we had to ask about income level, benefits, reasons why they were without food, and if they expected to be out of their situations anytime soon!
"We tried to ask the questions in as delicate a way as possible, but their reaction was: who are these white, middle-class college kids coming in here asking us stuff like this?
"We thought we were being helpful and beneficial, but they made it very obvious that what we were doing was studying their suffering. It was jolting to feel that, but their reaction kept it real."
Post-graduation plans aren't fixed at this point. "What I'd really like to do is start or enhance a community-service program at a high school where I'm a teacher."
Singer, who's majoring in mathematics and religion, kept to himself during his first year year in Oberlin, caught up in academics and trying to fit into a new college.
"Your own little piece of the campus becomes an easy focus. You're reluctant to involve yourself in the greater College, let alone the town or the county. That's what the Center for Service and Learning is trying to change. Before the fellowship I lived my life in just a few square blocks. Now it has expanded."
Singer says the chief benefit of the fellowship program--and its new service-learning component, which gives community involvement an academic context via workshops, research, and position papers--is his "exposure to what's out there. I'm learning about what I can do in the world more than I ever have before."
--by Betty Gabrielli
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