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Faculty Profile: "Sharing Our Lives" - Fall 2002

Faculty Profile: "Sharing Our Lives"
Therese Seibert and the Community Research Center

Photo of Therese SeibertOn hot and stuffy summer mornings, Rhodes Hall should be pretty much deserted. School's out; professors should be getting some down time and students should be at the beach or earning money for next semester. It seems surprising then to find Therese Seibert, associate professor of sociology, and Heather Werner, a sociology major, crammed into Therese's office, peering at a list of data on a computer screen. But neither is complaining; Seibert and Werner believe that working on their project is a fair trade-off for the beach.

For the past year, Werner has been helping the Rachel Marshall Outdoor Learning Laboratory assess how well the lab supports the curriculum needs of local schools. The lab, a pleasant patch of meadows and woods beside the Ashuelot River near downtown Keene, provides an outdoor classroom and programs for elementary teachers and children. Werner's job, not an easy one, was to assess the success of one of their projects by interviewing some of the lab's key customers, second graders. With help from Seibert, Werner designed a survey to record the children's responses using happy, neutral, and sad faces. Sitting with a group of children, Werner asked them questions such as "When I get to work in a small group, I feel..." and "When I work with members of our Keene community and I solve problems, I feel...." Now, early in the summer, Werner keys the children's responses into a statistical program on Seibert's computer. When she's done, the findings will be analyzed and results and conclusions compiled into a report. At that point Seibert will be able to add one more satisfied client to the growing list of the Community Research Center, the new institute at Keene State that she directs.

I learned that having students work in the community is the best way to tune them into learning.Seibert is a devotee of the practice of students earning academic credit by serving in the community, a practice known as service learning. She's working in the right place; each semester, hundreds of Keene State students fan out into the Monadnock region to volunteer in schools, clinics, public agencies, and non-profit organizations. It appears to be a win-win situation – students find the hands-on training they need, and community organizations find a never-ending supply of voluntary help.

But Seibert, through the Community Research Center, has taken the idea of students serving in the community a step further, creating a self-funding business by meeting community needs. Her sociology students volunteer their time to design and conduct research projects for non-profits and public agencies, providing a service that these organizations have been crying out for, says Seibert. Word has spread throughout area non-profits and public agencies that the Center can provide quick, accurate, and inexpensive research services. Seibert and the Center's new part-time manager, Sherman Morrison, find themselves fielding calls weekly from prospective clients.

Last fall, ten students from Seibert's class worked with clients ranging from the Cheshire County Complex, a prison near Keene, to the Keene Housing Authority. The students designed research instruments, collected and analyzed data using highly specialized computer software, and wrote and presented reports to their clients. The projects became so important to the class, says Seibert, that several students, including Werner, continued working voluntarily on their research projects over the summer.

So, how does a professor motivate her students to give up their summer vacation to complete their projects? Actually, says Seibert, the idea for developing the CRC came from the students themselves. In fall 1999, during a discussion on focus groups, Seibert asked her research methods students how they thought their course could be improved. "The students said that they wanted to be more involved in the community doing research that counted," Seibert says. And that answer fit perfectly with the way she likes to teach.

"My teaching philosophy is to give students skills and enthusiasm for learning that they will use over their lifetimes," she explained. "When they leave college I want them to be able to look for answers, problem-solve, and make good decisions."

Seibert's ability to engage her students in learning and caring about community issues completes a circle in her life. As a young girl growing up in Kenner, La., Seibert attended a school run by the Teresian Sisters, an order of nuns originally from Cuba. "They were very happy people who had a positive commitment to social justice," says Seibert. "They modeled this commitment by being active in the community." The sisters would take Seibert and her classmates into the community to work with people less fortunate. Seibert remembers working in a nursing home where she met children with terrible illnesses. Those kinds of experiences, she explains, "had a lifelong effect on me."

Seibert's own college experiences also help define the way she relates to her students. Like many Keene State students, Seibert was the first in her family to attend college. She earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, where in her first year she dealt with financial aid ("there was none so I had to put myself through") and often wondered, "What am I doing here?" In time, though, she met a professor, Robert Grambling, who encouraged her to pursue a master's degree. Her confidence and achievements on the rise, Seibert completed her master's in sociology at Louisiana State University, dabbled with social work ("It was a bad fit: I would take cases home with me"), and headed off to the University of Texas to study for her doctorate in sociology with her new mentor, Mark Fossett. She had come to appreciate his approach with his students. "He worked closely with us, taking time to critique our work and to show us how it could be better."

This is a theme Seibert has carried through into her own teaching. "I'm not the aloof professor standing behind the podium," she explains. "In my classes we get to know each other by sharing our lives. I tell my students that I see myself in many of them, such as being a first-generation student or doubting why they should be at college. I also tell them that like me, 'you can do this.'" In this climate of collaboration and trust, Therese feels that students put more effort into their work.

Seibert discovered service learning at Colorado College, her final stop before Keene State. There on a one-year visiting professorship, she inherited a community-based project her predecessor had begun with his students for the Urban League. "I liked this project because students had gone into the community to collect information, had prepared reports, and had then gone back to the community to present their work," she explains. She and the students decided to update the data, so they carried out a fresh round of interviews. Seibert found it invigorating to supervise the students and coordinate the research. "I learned that having students work in the community is the best way to tune them into learning," she says. "They become highly motivated to learn when they know that other people, such as clients, will see their work."

Since 1998, Keene State students have benefited from Seibert's empathy and expectations and her many academic interests. This year, while continuing her work with the Community Research Center, she will teach several sociological research courses, ethnic relations, and a new course on the Holocaust and genocide. She would like to take a sabbatical, either to conduct research in a country that has experienced genocide or to finish her book on gender issues. "It doesn't make sense to me to teach about countries I haven't seen, and I'd like to provide a global perspective of genocide for my students," she says. But her book, piled in an uncompleted state on a shelf, also nags for her attention.

For a person accustomed to dealing with competing demands for her time, Seibert said she is now trying to figure out how to balance her workload, settle into a new house with her 13-year-old daughter Marisa, and enjoy the New England countryside that brought them to Keene. Never far from her mind though are the possibilities she and her students have created through the Community Research Center. The reason why she is willing to spend summer days in her office, Seibert explains, is because her students are fulfilling her teaching ideals.

"The client evaluations of our students are the best we've ever seen," she says. "It's because they're working for a purpose, not just a grade. In the end, hopefully, they will have the skills and knowledge to advance society."

Dave Orsman is a writer and editor in the College Relations Office.