They say you learn better by doing.
So this summer, students aiming to be admitted to Minnesota State University’s social work program are getting thrown into a little doing.
“The idea is to put them out into the field before they come into the major,” said their social work professor, Debra Gohagan. “It will give them an idea, or help them get a picture of what social services are all about, show them people whose life circumstances are quite different from their own.”
To that end, potential social work students have been dispatched to a handful of organizations in Mankato that work with people who are hungry.
Some will work with the Backpack Food Program. Others will be at the Salvation Army. Some are helping out at the E.C.H.O. Food Shelf, the Campus Kitchen program or the community garden run by the Center for Earth and Spirituality.
The idea is for the students to be on the front lines of hunger in the community. From that vantage point, it’s easier for them to see the humans behind the hunger.
By the end of the week, the students working with Heather Spann at the Salvation Army hadn’t gotten too thick into the work they’ll be doing. But they’d already seen enough.
The students there will primarily be working with the Salvation Army’s Mobile Outreach Meals program, which delivers hot meals to five locations around Mankato. They’ll be helping prepare meals, serving them on site, and coming up with creative things for kids to do while the mobile meal vehicle is at the site.
In their short time so far, though, they’ve already witnessed a side of Mankato most college students don’t see. The other day a man came just looking for a place to shower.
“I couldn’t believe how happy that guy was just because he got a shower,” said Sarah Sannerud of Granite Falls. “I come from a good family. I can’t imagine what that’s like.”
Group member Mike Kraushaar of Cottage Grove said living on campus has the potential to shield students from what’s going on in the community at large.
“I’ve lived here for three years,” he said, “and I’ve never really known what’s going on behind the scenes.”
If the chosen sites have any say about it, the students will know a lot more about what’s going on behind the scenes very soon.
“They’re really going to be doing everything,” Spann said. “I always like when we can get the college kids in town involved in something positive, because they kind of get a bad rap.”
Spann said they’ll get a good look at what it takes to run a food program and give them experience working with kids — both of which they’ll encounter a lot if they become social workers.
Also, Spann said that, without these students, the Salvation Army would have to hire additional workers. As it is, Spann says she’ll only need to hire one part-timer.
“Our students are able to give them more services, and help them get more done,” Gohagan said. “Also, they’ll get to see how (the agencies) work together.”
Gohagan said she chose food-related agencies to get students thinking more about poverty and hunger.
“One of the things we don’t talk about is poverty and food insufficiency,” she said, “and that’s an area where they can really make a difference.
The students will be keeping diaries and employing unique methods of understanding hunger, such as spending a weekend eating the same food elementary school students from the Back Pack Food Program are sent home with.
“We need people who are committed to advocating for the people in their communities, as well as globally,” Gohagan said. “We want them prepared for facing some of the most difficult challenges. We want to raise a group of young people who know what it means to give back.”