Immersion opportunities increase

Four new immersive learning courses for the fall, more to come in the spring

Criminal justice major James Waddell’s fall schedule was fairly typical for a college sophomore: Classes, extracurriculars and more filled his time. However, one class was anything but typical — the Inside-Out prison exchange program. Each week, Waddell attended class with 14 inmates at the Lebanon County jail, discussing topics like correctional officer training and injustices within the correctional system. Being immersed in a community that completely differed from his own left a lasting impact. 

“I got to experience people from all walks of life who did not want to be in the system in the first place. I really understood, from their point of view, the inhumanities of being in the system,” Waddell said at a March 6 panel about immersive learning courses. “I had prejudices coming in about inmates — that they’re scary, the worst of society — and after leaving this past semester, I just see them as humans. I mean, that’s what we should all see them as, humans, but just simplifying it. They’re human beings, they have goals in life, they want to get out, they want to pursue careers like I want to pursue law enforcement.”  

It’s experiences like Waddell’s that define immersive learning and encompass its goals. And thanks to the Eigel Center for Community-Engaged Learning’s work throughout the past year, more opportunities to have these experiences are being created for students. The fall semester will see four new immersive learning courses, from marketing to philosophy, with plans to continue their expansion into the spring.   

According to Father Nathan Wendt, a member of the Eigel Center staff and the program coordinator for Road Through Xavier, immersive learning combines academic coursework with immersion experiences in which students learn about social justice issues facing communities. 

“Immersive learning is a curricular experience tied to academic coursework that immerses students with different communities, either locally, domestically or internationally, with professors,” Wendt said. “The focus of the immersion is to start to build solidarity with other communities and explore issues of social justice within those communities.”

The new immersive learning classes for the fall include Marketing 300, Philosophy 333, Theology 345 and an Honors 300 interdisciplinary philosophy and biology course. All four include some type of immersion experience. For example, Theology 345: The Challenge of Peace will involve a weekend immersion experience in Detroit at the Taproot Sanctuary, where students will learn about the history of peace advocacy in Detroit as well as intentional living and racial justice within the city. 

Students can learn more about the fall 2019 courses either through Road Through Xavier or by searching via the immersive learning attribute in the Banner course catalog. 

One of the distinguishing features of an immersive learning course is its focus on community engagement and building relationships. In contrast with service learning courses, students do not enter communities specifically to provide a service but rather to listen and gain new perspectives. They also have to meet specific learning outcomes, including analyzing systemic causes of injustices within a community and demonstrating intercultural competence, per the Eigel Center’s immersive learning web page. 

“There’s no task to be accomplished for anyone when you’re having the immersion experience, but rather being with others and learning from others and being welcomed by others to have an experience in their life and learning about systemic issues,” Wendt said. “It’s supposed to shape students’ world views and also build relationship with people.”

Waddell and senior occupational therapy major Rachel Zapf attested to this aspect of their immersive experiences at the panel. Zapf said that before going to Guatemala for her immersive experience, students completed a preparatory course that emphasized how to authentically learn from a community instead of being tourists. 

Another central component of immersive learning classes is reflection. After returning to the United States, Zapf and her classmates wrote reflections about the program, which included a weeklong stay with a host family and a week working at an orphanage. She said she found it difficult to wrestle with what she experienced. 

“I came back with a lot of internal dialogue. It’s really hard to explain,” Zapf said. “I struggled with the fact that I saw things in Guatemala that you would never see in the United States, so that was the biggest takeaway.”

Spanish professor Dr. Diane Ceo-DiFrancesco said even though these experiences can be challenging, they are important because they help students recognize a plurality of perspectives. Her Latino Voices in the Community class, another immersive learning course, emphasizes active listening and providing a voice to the voiceless as part of this process. 

Even though there are only four new classes for the fall, Wendt, Ceo-DiFranceso and the rest of the Eigel Center staff are continuing to work with faculty to expand the offerings for the spring. They are currently exploring options within the history, English and psychology departments as well as looking to add more theology and business courses. They’re also looking to expand internationally, with potential experiences in the Caribbean or Central and South America. 

Ultimately, Wendt said, the goal is that immersive learning experiences will become the norm for Xavier students.  

“(Students’) experiences of having immersions have helped their world view and what they’re thinking about for their careers, how to approach their careers (and) what they will be doing,” Wendt said. “…Because of their potential impact, the university has a priority to make more of these experiences.”

By: Ellen Siefke | Editor-in-Chief