The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Class Project Builds Bridges between Students and Campus Workers

University of Massachusetts students in Introduction to Community Engagement with instructor Ellen PaderFrom left: Instructor Ellen Pader, Saachi Mukerjee, Janelle Sochet, James Mazarakis, Joseph Langlois / Photo: Matthew Medeiros
Thursday, April 4, 2019

UMass Amherst students and service workers coexist on campus, but that doesn’t mean they connect in meaningful ways.

For the past five years, an oral history project in a course called “Transforming Your World: Introduction to Community Engagement” has worked to bridge that divide, by connecting students with the people who maintain their classrooms and dorms, prepare and serve their meals, and do other important but often unseen work to keep the campus operating. The class, taught by Professor Ellen Pader of the School of Public Policy and the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, works with the UMass Amherst Labor/Management Workplace Education as their community partner.

An exhibit highlighting those oral history projects will be on view at the second annual Building Bridges Showcase, on Tuesday, April 9, from 12 to 7 p.m. at the Fine Arts Center Atrium. The culmination of a semester-long initiative designed to foster connections across campus, the Building Bridges Showcase will include workshops, music, performances, and three art installations, “Our Immigrant Voices,” “Showcasing Worker Artists at UMass,” and “Building Bridges,” a public art and engagement project that features cards on which on which campus community members wrote about the differences they’d like to see bridged. In addition, a digital display of posters made by the “Transforming Your World” students of the workers they interviewed will run continuously throughout the showcase, and the stories will be available to read. 

The goal of the course, Pader says, is to introduce students to the concept of service-learning and to help them understand the value of community engagement and develop skills to make positive change. Class exercises are designed to get students to consider their role in their community and to think about the world beyond of their own experiences—starting with their project teams, which Pader assigns with an eye toward exposing them to students from different backgrounds. “They start seeing other perspectives right away,” she says. “There are a lot of ‘Eureka!’ moments.”

Each team is matched with a UMass employee through Labor/Management Workplace Education. The students interview the person, then write a story based on the conversation, in the voice of the interview subject. Each year, the stories are collected in a booklet and posted on a class blog.

This close-up of a model by a landscape architecture student shows three human figures in a pergola

A selection of posters from the class. (Photo: Matthew Medeiros)

The workers decide what they want to talk about in their interviews. Some speak about their jobs, while others focus on their families, their cultural backgrounds, their hobbies. This year’s interviews included a distribution services employee who talked about earning his degree while working full time, a campus custodian from Brazil who spoke about her love of art and travel, and a physical plant worker who discussed what it’s like being a woman in a field dominated by men.

Maryam Mullenix, a communications and math major, and her teammates interviewed Pasang Norbu, a campus parking meter service attendant who came to the US from India in 2005. “He works for Parking Services, but his life is comprised of so much more than that,” Mullenix says. “He's devoted to his culture and religion. He talked about his family and how he's doing everything to make their lives better. If you were to look at him, you would see a parking services guy, and that may be all you see. You wouldn't know about the PhD he has in Tibetan culture or the work he does for the community.”

Warren Douglas, a custodial services employee, was interviewed by the class a few years ago. In his story, he talked about his work, his childhood in the Bronx, and the importance of family. “It was a great learning experience for me, because I was dealing with people who were kids to me, so to speak,” he says. What was supposed to be a thirty-minute interview turned into a three-hour conversation. “I just told them the truth about my feelings.” 

Too often, staff and students simply don’t connect, Douglas says. “They’re here, and we’re here, and we both have a job to do,” he says. “There has to be a reason for people to get together.” The Transforming Your World project presented that opportunity, says Douglas, who has remained in touch with the students. “They’re great kids, and they’re our future.”

The class project is a perfect fit for the campus-wide Building Bridges effort, says Joseph Connolly, director of Labor/Management Workplace Education and an organizer of the initiative. “For some students this may be a population they’re familiar with. These may be their parents, their relatives,” he says. “And for others, there may be a big learning curve.”

Among the employee participants, Connolly says, “I see a real sense of pride. The message to them is their story means something, and that’s pretty valuable.”

About the School of Public Policy: Established in 2016, the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy is a hub for research and teaching, preparing students for leadership in public service. The program’s focuses include social change and public policy related to science and technology.

— Maureen Turner, communications manager, School of Public Policy