Students rock climb, help homeless in new experiential learning course

Rund Khayyat

The School of Social Work has partnered with Recreational Sports to create an experiential learning course for students and help the Austin community. 

The School of Social Work piloted the course in the fall 2015 semester. According to Chris Burnett, the course instructor and RecSports’ senior assistant director, students undertake a two-semester curriculum that combines leadership training, group work and recreational sports skills.

In the fall, students worked with Caritas of Austin and Foundation Communities to help people transitioning out of homelessness. The experience helped students mature by teaching them how to process their emotions and handle difficult situations after college, Burnett said. This spring, the students will train to teach rock climbing to women and children from the Settlement Home of Austin and then use the experience to discuss overcoming challenges.

“By taking this approach to the realities of homelessness and leadership through experience, we put students in an environment that makes them explore emotions and ideas that make them uncomfortable — and that’s good,” Burnett said. “We all go through assumptions and generalizations in life. Understanding welfare and homelessness through this hands-on approach is a powerful experience.”

The instructors gave students tools that helped them develop real-world experience in leadership, social work senior Elizabeth Cook said.

“Before this class I didn’t see myself as a leader, and I thought you had to be in an official role to lead others,” Cook said. “I now see that we each have the ability to lead our peers and use our privilege and strengths to work towards goals.”

Burnett believes pushing students will help them better develop these leadership qualities.

“We don’t just show up, work and leave,” Burnett said. “[The students] have dinner with these residents, so there is a powerful engagement. … That’s an experience they’ll never forget from this class.”

Applied learning and development senior Hannah Ross said each class session had specific challenges the students had to solve together.

“It was unlike any other course I’ve taken at UT,” Ross said. “It encourages cooperative work but also pushed each of us individually to conquer fears and rely on strength we didn’t know we had.”

Burnett believes the experiential learning structure should also be implemented in other subject areas.

“It’s much more engaging,” Burnett said. “[The students] have to talk and debrief each other, which is quite painful for [them] because so much communication is through social media. There’s a way to put this approach in many more educational experiences that will deepen the learning.”