American Sociological Association

Sociology in Action: Jill Harrison

Jill Harrison, professor of sociology and justice studies at Rhode Island College, offered a service learning course to students to work on food sustainability, educational support, traditional gardening and hydroponic engineering in collaboration with a non-profit orphanage and school near Quito, Ecuador. 

What was the purpose of the project? The purpose of this three week service learning course was to inspire and create global citizenship by offering a hands-on experience living and working with children who were abandoned, abused, or orphaned, and their staff and educators.

Could you describe your involvement with the organization? My role was to facilitate a collaborative exchange between students, children, and staff. This began initially through a series of conversations and visits I had with the orphanage’s director, educators, and support personnel. These preliminary meetings generated projects and defined support roles that were important to the host site. We agreed that the college students would be tasked with assisting and supporting the host sites' projects and activities. The government had recently requested that the orphanage and school switch from an educational focus on accounting and economics to a focus on agronomy, motivated in part by the amount of land the orphanage-school had at their disposal. The director acknowledged that it was a daunting task to institute a new academic focus and welcomed our collaboration to work toward their new mandate.  

While the students worked on projects that the orphanage staff and teachers asked us to develop or to assist with, the students learned the meaning of global citizenship. Being a citizen of the world involves civic engagement and responsibility that is not dependent on the language you speak, the culture you are from, or your nationality. The curriculum included the importance of growing your own food, the science behind it, and the many uses of the physical environment for traditional farming and hydroponic growing. The projects and activities included:

  • Assisting the target population in developing composting and recycling systems and the science behind it.
  • Assisting in traditional farming techniques, including companion planting, and expanding new acreage for additional food crops, such as corn and squash.
  • Assisting and developing in-class activities for teachers to teach the children how to create a hydroponic gardening system with empty plastic soda bottles. These hydroponic systems were hung in the classrooms so that the children could monitor plant growth, and other scientific observations, such as sun exposure and water needed. These children learned about hydroponic engineering.
  • Providing students the opportunity to engage inside and outside the classroom for language acquisition, Spanish and Kichwa, and help teachers and students with their English language curriculum. (The school advertises to the wider community that they are bilingual, and the students assisted in supporting classroom teachers in this goal.).
  • Providing student support to the children in afterschool activities, including soccer, daily chores, and assist with meal preparation and clean-up. Students learned about the local diet, were taught how to prepare traditional dishes, and shared at least one meal every day with the children.
  • In addition to onsite support, students had the opportunity for weekend excursions for a broader cultural experience, including a trip to the Amazon, indigenous museums, and a tour of the old Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What sociological knowledge and/or skills were used? Students were required to keep a daily, detailed journal of their experiences and were taught to mine their data as a tool for ethnographic research. This participant observation research method gave the students an opportunity to synthesize shared sociocultural similarities and differences based on their interactions with the children in their homes, at play, and while providing teacher support at school. They learned how to use their diaries to describe, analyze, and process their experiences and view the results as cultural data. The students then used that data to write a final paper on global citizenship. We defined global citizenship as an ability to become aware of and cultivate an understanding in “the wider world,” through the lens of participation and observation. The goal was for them to develop a whole-world philosophy approach, and by mining their own participant-observation data the students were often able to generate a newfound perspective on the reality that while we may come from separate nations, cultures, or ethnicities, we are one world and in it together. Students were also asked to consider signing an informed consent document that allowed their ethnographies to be used for additional research and publication. In sum, the goal was not for the students to become skilled in agronomy or hydroponic engineering, but through these projects, to begin to learn what it means to become a global citizen.

How did you connect with the local organization? I originally went to Ecuador to visit friends and also serve as an interpreter for some research in the women’s prison. From those connections, I became acquainted with the director of the foundation and sought his guidance on worthwhile projects he might allow students to assist with. The service learning course was born out of these personal connections.

Duration of the project? This particular service learning site lasted for five years. While we continue to seek grants to support their ongoing endeavors related to food sustainability, the projects we helped them initiate were completed such that they were farming more land, engaged in hydroponic growing, and they are now producing enough surplus to sell outside the school-orphanage to the community.

Is there anything else you would like to share about this work? The global citizenship service learning class continues and new sites are being developed. These new sites may include at risk populations here in the US, such as a First Nation reservation in the Midwest, or an orphanage in Belize. The international service learning course is usually offered in the pre-spring term - listen to student testimonials here.