Community-Based Learning Director Receives Two Awards for Dissertation on Spiritual Impact of Service Learning

Michelle Sterk Barrett, the director of the Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning at the College of the Holy Cross, has received two awards for her dissertation on spiritual growth during service learning experiences. She received the Dalton Institute on College Student Values Dissertation of the Year Award, which is given by Florida State University to an outstanding doctoral dissertation relevant to the field of college student character and values development. She also earned an Honorable Mention Dissertation Recognition from the International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement.

Sterk Barrett completed her dissertation work and Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts Boston in 2015. Using data from her nine years as the assistant director of the PULSE Program for Service Learning at Boston College, she set out to find what circumstances led to spiritual growth during a student service learning experience.

She found that the key to spiritual growth is a balance of challenge and support. While participating in community service, students are challenged to think about the injustice that they are witnessing, oftentimes by building relationships with people who didn’t fit their assumptions and stereotypes.

“Witnessing the injustice is an eye-opening experience that leads to spiritual struggle. Students have to think about really hard questions: ‘Why does suffering exist? What is my meaning in life if this is happening around me? How should I respond? How does a God let this happen?’” Sterk Barrett says. “They have to deal with these questions, but at the same time have the support of class discussion and reflection, and it leads to spiritual growth.”

The support is a key element, because it provides a framework for the students to reflect on these tough questions, rather than being overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues.

Sterk Barrett first wanted to explore the spiritual impact of community service more than 20 years ago, after a life-changing service experience of her own. “I first wanted to study this when I did a postgrad year of service,” Sterk Barrett says. “That year of service impacted me so deeply, on a spiritual level, that I wanted to figure out what happened to me.”

She has integrated her research findings into the work she does here at Holy Cross with community-based learning (CBL). CBL gives students the opportunity to connect academic learning with civic engagement, bringing classroom learning to life through a range of projects and direct service opportunities that meet community identified needs. CBL courses span a wide variety of disciplines and have even been integrated into sections of the first-year Montserrat program.

“What is so exciting about the awards is that it helps to get the work out there,” she says. “It is not about me and my knowledge or getting a degree, but about having a positive impact on the way people operate in higher education.”

Down the road, she hopes her research will inspire college and university administrators to incorporate service learning into all academic areas, even in courses where the content is not directly related to religion or spirituality. She also wants to investigate how a student’s race and ethnicity impacts service learning experiences.

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