For 16 years, Canal Alliance has partnered with Dominican University’s Service-Learning Program. In fact, Canal Alliance has been Dominican Service-Learning Program’s core community partner since the program began in 2005. According to Julia van der Ryn, who leads the program as Executive Director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning at Dominican University, there are typically 50 to 70 service-learning students working with Canal Alliance programs in any given semester.
Julia herself has been personally engaged with Canal Alliance for many years, stating, “I learned so much more about the Canal neighborhood and the need for advocacy, not just direct services, when Omar, myself, and another faculty member worked with Canal community leaders on the Voces del Canal participatory research project beginning in 2012.”
As a main component of the program, Dominican students are placed within programs at Canal Alliance and other community-based organizations and commit to working with them for a minimum of two hours per week for a full 15-week semester. The majority of service-learning students placed with Canal Alliance work with the ESL and University Prep (UP!) programs, or at our weekly food pantry.
Students who participate in the program are not only volunteering, but also participate in service-learning curriculum. In service-learning, it is essential that students learn about and understand the larger contexts that impact people’s lives and opportunities, such as systemic racism, and recognizing and valuing the strengths, assets, and knowledge present in the community. Students working with Canal Alliance and other organizations gain first-hand understanding about the lives of others, models for social change, and the importance of being civically engaged. Dominican’s service-learning program is a co-educational partnership, and working with an organization like Canal Alliance is a central part of the course curriculum.
As part of the curriculum, students enroll in service-learning classes. The faculty are invested in social justice issues and format their class content to include community context, learning about the challenges marginalized people face and the assets and strengths they contribute, and the importance of honoring community knowledge. At its core, the program centralizes resources and support for students, partner organizations and the diverse communities they serve in order to advance education and social justice through shared learning and collaborative action.
Julia said, “When the pandemic happened in March 2020; everyone was in crisis mode. We knew how hard hit the Canal neighborhood was and how overstretched all of our partners were. Yet, that same summer, Dominican reconnected with program directors and developed creative and vital ways to continue to work together with the staff to support the Canal community and its programming.”
According to Kate Ryder, Canal Alliance ESL Supervisor, the service-learning students from Dominican are a great asset to the ESL program: “they are close in age to the majority of ESL students, which helps them connect and engage. With the help of service-learning students, we are able to offer more individual attention to ESL students. Some service-learners provide other critical support to our program such as helping to set up and distribute technology to our students.”
Henry Velasquez, UP! Middle School Program Supervisor, said, “Many Dominican service-learning students enjoy our program so much that they return semester after semester to work with the same students. Getting support from a current university student is also a great benefit to the students in our program because they can talk to our students about college and discuss the application process.”
Over the years, Dominican serving-learning students have had such profound experiences at Canal Alliance that several have launched or continued their careers with the organization. Kiana Johnson, who works on the fundraising team as the Development Assistant said, “being a part of the Dominican Service-Learning Program made me feel like I had more to offer my community than I initially realized. For the first time, I stepped into the role of a mentor to others. Our similarities as people of color and first-generation college students helped build trust and seemed to motivate them more. If I could do it, so could they!”
Michael Gomez began as an UP! tutor while enrolled in the service-learning program at Dominican in Spring 2016. He connected so much with UP! students that they urged Canal Alliance staff to hire him. As a result, Michael began to work part-time while enrolled as a full-time student at Dominican. Today Michael works full-time as the High School Program Supervisor.
Dominican students recently became more involved with Canal Alliance through the Civic Action Fellowship, launched in partnership with California Volunteers and AmeriCorps. Currently, there are six Civic Action Fellows who will complete a semester of service with Canal Alliance programs in Spring 2021.
Canal Alliance clients, students, staff, the community benefit greatly from this partnership. We are grateful to Dominican University of California for 16 years of collaboration and for your talented and caring service-learning students.