Learning how to Strengthen Communities with Prof Osteen

Learning how to Strengthen Communities with Prof Osteen

Today on Progressive Pedagogy, Professor Billy Osteen, Associate Professor of Community Engagement at the University of Canterbury, reflects on the devastating earthquakes that hit Christchurch, New Zealand in 2010 and 2011. What he witnessed of student strength, power, organization, and community care informed his proposal and design for the course “Strengthening Communities through Social Innovation.”

Professor Osteen recounts his experience. He writes: “In 2010 and 2011, Christchurch, New Zealand was hit by a devastating series of earthquakes that destroyed 80% of our downtown, rendered 11,000 homes uninhabitable, and killed 185 people. Amidst the tragedy, over 10,000 University of Canterbury students self-organized themselves into the Student Volunteer Army and provided essential assistance by helping clean up liquefaction (a quicksand like substance) and distribute blankets, chemical toilets, and water. As important as their manual labor was, their interactions with residents across the city flipped the script on local community members seeing college students as noisy, partying, and troublesome. Literally overnight, our students were now seen as helpful, thoughtful, and useful. Likewise, the students felt a sense of self-efficacy and relevance in that they were able to really help out. While I was observing this amazing display, I was considering how to bring their actions back onto campus.”

Professor Osteen looked into models of service learning, finding that Tulane University in New Orleans developed a successful service learning and community engagement program after Hurricane Katrina. Professor Osteen conferred with them to propose the course CHCH101: Strengthening Communities through Social Innovation, to the University of Canterbury President— the class was launched a mere five months after the 2011 earthquake. The course has been offered every year to over 1,000 students and now builds service within the course. Bridging learning and service inside and outside the classroom, the course has worked with diverse partners including community groups, government and nonprofits. The wide success of the course has led to the addition of community engagement as part of the four core campus-wide skills University of Canterbury students come out with post-graduation and a new degree program. Students can now receive a Bachelor of Arts in Youth and Community Leadership.

Professor Osteen writes: “The opportunity to create and teach the community engagement course related to the earthquakes has led to a reflection on how dependent New Zealand is on volunteers to help run the schools through parent boards of trustees and provide staff for volunteer surf lifeguards and volunteer firefighters. Thus, a course that invites students to think about their contributions to society is important for them and the community partners they work with. Ideally, they will then be more prepared to step into the voluntary roles that help keep communities vibrant. The role of education in this is essential and is reflected in the Ancient Greeks belief that everyone is born an idiot (idios is the Greek word for one concerned solely with one’s self) and it is only through education that one becomes a citizen.”

When we asked Professor Osteen for one tip or technique that he used in his classes he offered the following wisdom: “One tip or technique— because my class is field-based where we do community service projects with organizations, it is important to demonstrate to students how community members are experts in their own fields and highly capable as guest teachers or lecturers. This fits into a larger theme of the course that emphasizes respect and gratitude for the people we meet and provide service to as it is our privilege to serve them.”

Professor Osteen’s commitment to service learning is witnessable in his diverse career history before his position at the University of Canterbury which includes teaching at North Carolina State University, creating and leading an alternative middle school, teaching high school English, running a program for the Peace Corps, guiding whitewater raft trips, and working as an assistant to a U.S. Senator. He writes, “The common thread among these different experiences has been the desire and opportunity to improve people’s lives at many levels.” Professor Osteen teaches courses on education and leadership. In addition to Strengthening Communities through Social Innovation, he has taught and contributed to Introduction to University Teaching, University Teaching Methods, Instructional Design, and Leading the Self. You can follow him on Facebook here.


Credit for the images are as follows: featured image of Prof. Osteen and Prince Harry via Duncan Shaw-Brown, image of Prof. Osteen and students at a mental health facility via Sandra Heeming, and image of Prof. Osteen and students at a community garden via Corey Blackburn.