For some UT students, Austin is their classroom and people are their subjects.
Last spring, journalism lecturer Diana Dawson challenged her students to learn about the faces behind current issues. Her class, Communicating the Human Side of Social Issues: The Immigrant Experience in Austin, sent students off campus most weeks for three hours to learn what day-to-day life is like for various social workers, nonprofit groups, health care providers and immigrants.
Before working at UT, Dawson was a professional reporter who specialized in covering social issues. She said her work and the rewards she saw it bring to people are what inspired her to pursue the same for her class. The Senior Fellows Program, an honors program for undergraduates in the College of Communication that provides them with graduate-like seminar classes, allowed Dawson to create and tailor a class to teach students about these issues.
“I loved that my job allowed the opportunity for in-depth reporting that had the potential to change lives,” Dawson said. “It worked especially well if you told the stories through the people who were living the problems, whether they were homeless families, foster children, prostitutes or addicts.”
Jordan Humphreys, a UT communication studies and government alumnus who took Dawson’s course last spring, said he had previously taken an introductory journalism class with Dawson his freshman year and that his experience with her influenced him to take her new class about immigrant experiences.
Students who took the class were required to do public service in the community and then write an in-depth report on one of the issues that the class covered.
“Most of them went beyond their required hours and research paper lengths, because they felt that it was rewarding,” Dawson said. “The volunteer director of one social service organization said she had never seen a class come as a group and pull weeds and clean bathrooms with their professor.”
Humphreys said the class had a profound effect on how he views immigration and social issues.
“We can remember every bit of the stories and experiences from the class when the facts and figures from standard classes have faded away,” Humphreys said. “I’ve found that I’m able to better connect with immigrants and scholars interested in immigration policy through this class.”
He said one of the most powerful experiences in the class was when they interacted with undocumented UT students.
“To hear these stories coming from students like me, people who were juggling the same tests, organizations and social life I was in addition to the worry of being undocumented, really gave me a lot to think about as my opinions on U.S. immigration policy evolve,” Humphreys said.
Catie Johnston, volunteer coordinator at Posada Esperanza, a shelter for immigrant single mothers and their children who have experienced domestic and cultural violence, said working with Dawson and her class was a very mutually beneficial experience.
“My most memorable moment with Dawson’s class is how eager the students were to learn about what we do and how it helps,” Johnston said. “It’s great to see that people going into law, government, finance and all sorts of jobs will have a perspective of these sometimes-overlooked problems to take with them.”
Humphreys said his experience in Dawson’s class followed him in his career.
“I think, ultimately, the experience of seeing how policies affect individual citizens will be helpful for me as I move to Washington, D.C., to start my career,” Humphreys said. “It’s helpful to keep in mind the individual stories behind the costs and trend lines.”
Dawson said she thinks her class was a big success, and she looks forward to teaching another one for the Senior Fellows Program this semester.