Believing in the common good

Each academic year, Senior Instructor Steve Cook sees around 1,000 students go through his GEO 300 classes. Cook will admit that he can’t keep track of every face that comes before him, but that doesn’t mean he thinks it’s OK for students to slip anonymously in and out of his classes.

Senior Instructor Steve Cook requires his students to do service projects, including planting trees in wetlands like this one, as part of their course work. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

Senior Instructor Steve Cook requires his students to do service projects, including planting trees in wetlands like this one, as part of their course work. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

He has constructed a number of strategies to keep students coming back to class, from random quizzes to creative class presentations that are a far cry from repeating passages in a textbook. But for the last three years, he’s added a new component to his class requirements, group projects featuring volunteer community service.

“Our lives are so easy,” he said. “We should be doing something for the rest of the world.”

Cook believes that there is only a small core of students with the time and dedication to do public service on their own. The rest are so busy with other demands on their time that they never quite fit volunteerism into their day.
So Cook does the motivating. Students join a six-person group made up of classmates, and must participate in one four-hour community service project per term, chosen from a list Cook compiles himself. He makes sure there are a variety of topics, times and dates available, so no student has an excuse not to participate.

The students have to participate in all four hours of volunteer work, and then write up a paper and a presentation based on their experience, which they present to the rest of the class. The project makes up one-third of their grade.
Because GEO 300 is a course on sustainability, the projects all tie in one way or another to the idea of sustainable practices, whether it’s participating in a local food cook off or trail maintenance, tree planting or non-native species removal.

“If you can’t find something that interests you, you probably shouldn’t be taking this class,” Cook said with a laugh.

And although Cook wondered if the community service requirement would be unpopular, the opposite was true.

“I’ve received remarkably positive feedback,” he said.

A few years ago, Cook supervised a group of students cutting down small trees that were encroaching on a meadow at the top of Marys Peak. The day was wet and miserable, and Cook admitted if he’d been alone he’d have turned around and gone back home. But his students were beaming.

“They were having a hell of a good time,” he said. The chance to physically see the day’s accomplishments in a pile of fallen logs is a rare opportunity for most of Cook’s students.

“We give them (a result) that looks real,” he said.

Cook is no stranger to working toward the common good. In 1992, he was one of the first people to visit Albania after the fall of communism. He struck up a friendship with families in the country, and began visiting whenever he could, including in 1996, when he received a Fulbright and taught for a term in the country.

He began to do small philanthropic work in the country, including hiring a woman to teach English in one of the villages, and setting up a school computer lab.

But eventually, he and his wife wanted to expand their work, so they created a non-profit called “Albanian Alps Institute,” which now gives $15,000 to $20,000 a year in aid to schools and students. From purchasing books to restock libraries decimated after the fall of communism, to providing bus passes for high school students to go back and forth to the nearest city each day, the money promotes education by meeting basic needs. It has a strong focus on the education of young village women who would otherwise be destined for early marriage and not a lot else.

Education makes people better citizens, Cook believes. So does community service. And that’s why he’s determined to make it a component of his classes.

“The bacc core is there to make citizens, it’s our goal,” he said. “We’re at a state university. We’re training citizens who end up being philosophers or engineers.”

Cook believes a community service requirement could be added to many types of classes, and that students and the community will both benefit from expanding the role of “the common good” as a component of a well-rounded education.

“It’s really fun, and it’s really rewarding.”

To find out about some of the many volunteer and community service activities available to OSU students, see the Student
Involvment and Leadership page at http://oregonstate.edu/sli/

~ Theresa Hogue

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