From Classroom to Community

Students, faculty, and community members co-created a course that revealed the extensive work done by local faith-based organizations

As their final project, students in the “Faith, Class, and Community” course launched Faith in Waterville, a website in which they published more than two dozen profiles of volunteers and leaders from faith-based organizations, detailing their extensive work in the greater Waterville community.
By Kardelen Koldas ’15
February 5, 2020

Last winter the Center for Small Town Jewish Life team was discussing how they could address socioeconomic divides in Waterville. As they brainstormed, Tori Paquette ’20, a center fellow, had a suggestion. What if, she said, there was a class where students could learn from community members to better understand persistent class divides and the dynamics around them?

Her suggestion became the course “RE285: Faith, Class, and Community,” in which students worked with various local faith-based organizations to learn firsthand about their programs supporting the community and, in the process, document them so that others, including the organizations themselves, could learn from one another’s efforts.

“I think I had all these lofty ideas,” said Paquette, a Jewish studies major and creative writing minor from New Hampshire who, as a low-income student, cared deeply about addressing these socioeconomic and cultural barriers on and off campus. “And when it’s very on the ground, like you’re sitting around a table with students talking about faith and class, it’s something kind of different—not in a bad way, in a good way.”

In that meeting was David Freidenreich, associate director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life and Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, who thought it was a great idea and wondered who might teach it. As he pondered, he noticed something: if he were to do it, he would not only have support from those who know the material, but also from Elizabeth Jabar, Colby’s director of civic engagement and community partnerships, and her office, Office of Civic Engagement. “This course would not be possible without Colby’s investments in a real structure to support community partnerships,” said Freidenreich.

Over the summer, Paquette, Freidenreich, and Jabar brought others to the table: Reverend Maureen Ausbrook from the Interfaith Council of Waterville and Winslow, Center for Small Town Jewish Life Program Coordinator Sarah Rockford ’15, and Judy Donovan of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyons.

“This has been the most elaborate and unusual course and design experience I’ve ever had because it was really a collaborative effort,” said Freidenreich, who has taught courses with a civic engagement component for years at Colby. “[We] were all just meeting on a regular basis over the summer, figuring out how to put this together, figuring out what it is that students could do that would actually make a real difference for our partners.”

While he developed the structure of the course, Paquette—currently applying to master’s programs in divinity school—explored reading materials, Jabar brought different community partners on board, and Ausbrook suggested the class’s final project of documenting the work of local faith-based organizations.

“Everyone was at the table from the beginning,” said Jabar, stressing how each person’s expertise and experience were instrumental in the making of the course. “This full partnership model is [the] best practice and supports the goals of our program to develop long-term partnerships.”

“This class has shown me a part of Waterville that I don’t think a lot of Colby students see, and maybe even certain members of the Waterville community don’t know about as much.”

Sarah Kaplan ’20

When the class started, students also became “co-creators” of the course, noted Freidenreich. It evolved as they all learned. Throughout the semester, students discussed readings, heard the experiences of guest lecturers—ranging from pastors to documentary storytellers—and went out to gain hands-on experience with community partners. Paired with faith-based organizations, each student interviewed program leaders and volunteered every week.

“This class has shown me a part of Waterville that I don’t think a lot of Colby students see, and maybe even certain members of the Waterville community don’t know about as much,” said Sarah Kaplan ’20, who worked with the Waterville Food Bank. A year-round resident of Waterville for the past three years, Kaplan was impressed by the work of all the volunteers in town. “I have gotten to see how their impact isn’t just on the people they serve, but part of a larger impact that all of these networks, all these faith-based organizations, all these charitable volunteer organizations are doing.”

Jiameng “Jamie” Sun ’20, an economics and East Asian studies major, worked with the Sandwich Program run by the First Baptist Church and Cornerstone Christian Fellowship. “Before taking this class, I learned a little about income inequality,” he said. Now, he’s considering graduate programs in economics where he could study how to fight that injustice. “Hopefully, I can do some research and help people understand income inequality and maybe persuade more people to fight the same.”

In the end, nine students produced a report containing 25 profiles of volunteers and leaders from numerous faith-based organizations across greater Waterville that documents their efforts to address poverty in the area. It was published on the class’s website, Faith in Waterville.

“I wasn’t really surprised by what [the organizations] were doing,” said Living Water Community Church Pastor Jon Avery. “I knew most of it, but just seeing it all right in front of me was surprising.” He’s hoping to use the website as a resource to point to when contacted by those in need.

Paquette, who took the class as an independent study, wrote an overview for the website, synthesizing the efforts of these organizations. That introduction was revealing even for those who have been involved in the community efforts.

“When you look at the first page, I think it’s amazing that the students have done research where they’ve said we are so far above the national average for what churches do,” said Ausbrook from the Interfaith Council. “I think all of us are kind of getting blown away by that.”

In addition to feeling reaffirmed, Ausbrook said the class opened up doors for her to engage with others working on this issue. “I didn’t know so much about other churches, what they were doing,” she said. Now, she does. “We’re all, I think, gaining [a] new respect for each other.”

Ausbrook hopes to use this report in many ways. One, she said, is to share it with the task force on homelessness on which she serves through the Waterville City Council. “I think it’s a foundational document.”

Spicing up the TV

Last semester there were other courses facilitated by the Office of Civic Engagement, including “Poverty and Food Insecurity” by Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics Benjamin Scharadin.

Scharadin’s students created healthy recipes—turkey saltine meatballs, beans and cheese, three-ingredient banana pancakes—for clients at the Waterville Food Bank. Each dish was made with ingredients available at the pantry. Students also filmed cooking demonstrations for some dishes, repurposing a TV gathering dust at the pantry for years, and inspiring those waiting in line.

Students in an economics class collaborated with the Waterville Food Bank to create healthy recipes that could be made by readily available ingredients at the pantry. Turkey saltine meatballs was one of the recipes that the students filmed to inspire the clients as they wait in line.

“[Poverty] is a very tangible issue,” said Scharadin. In addition to readings and data, he wanted his students to have a well-rounded understanding of poverty and food insecurity while meaningfully contributing to an organization working on those issues. “I feel it’s very incomplete if you don’t make it tangible.”

Elizabeth Jabar, director of civic engagement and community partnerships, noted that while some classes have semester-long academic civic engagement projects, others have shorter ones. “All of those things [projects] can be really quality learning experiences for students and of benefit to the community,” said Jabar. She highlighted several other classes with an academic civic engagement component, including Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Jerzy Wieczorek’s “Statistical Surveys, Censuses, and Society” course that conducted a survey for the Waterville Fire Department.