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July 28, 2020

Learning while meeting community needs

Lorelei Blackburn wants her students to do more than simply read, complete assignments, and take tests.

Each semester, the Assistant Professor of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures personalizes the learning experience for her students by pairing classwork with community-based projects. Last fall, a chance encounter led Blackburn to the perfect student opportunity as well as for MSU researchers involved in an ongoing mental health project for Michigan teens.

“It all happened because we sat together at a table,” said Blackburn of meeting Joanne Riebschleger, Associate Professor of Social Work at MSU. “We were both attending a university networking event and got to talking about each other’s work and interests.”

Blackburn discovered Riebschleger was leading a research and community-outreach project focused on mental health literacy for youth — particularly youth with a parent or family member with mental illness. One piece of the project was an informational website on mental health issues for middle school youth, ages 11-15.

Although informed by youth through focus groups and feedback, the website needed fine-tuning to feel authentic. Riebschleger was concerned about preserving the teen voice and ensuring contemporary graphics and navigation standards.

She wanted Mental Health Info for Teens to resonate with the adolescent audience and to provide access to accurate, non-stigmatized information on anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, ADHD, personality disorders, schizophrenia/psychosis and other mental health issues.

“We wanted a website targeted to teens, not adults,” Riebschleger said. “We had lots of stories. We had videos, and we had lots of information. We simply needed the professional touch to keep it genuine and appealing.”

Blackburn and Riebschleger exchanged emails and phone numbers. They kept in touch. Shortly before the spring 2020 term, Blackburn saw a connection between the work of her new acquaintance and her upcoming class: Writing in the Public Interest (WRA331).

Blackburn put her concepts on paper and sent Riebschleger a proposal for how her students could help build and apply communication strategy for nonprofits. Riebschleger liked the idea.

In less than two months, the WRA331 students delivered digital materials that included a project library, a document repository and a style guide, as well as new templates, infographics, website activity materials and promotional documents.

“Originally, I was just looking for a few stories,” Riebschleger said. “But Lorelei’s students came back with content that blew me away. It was a massive array of documents, activities and graphics, including color schemes and fonts. I was knocked out that undergraduates could produce that much in that amount of time and get it 99 percent right.”

Professionalized practices

From the first day of class, Blackburn emphasized the world-changing potential of rhetoric and writing. She informed students they would be collaborating directly with local and national nonprofits, and applying rhetorical practices and analysis that could help organizations achieve their missions. Even more, she set the tone by running her class like a professional creative agency, allowing students to make choices, work in teams, and interact with clients through student liaisons.

“My class is all about professionalizing students so they feel comfortable and confident and able to say they did work that made a difference, not just an assignment,” she said. “While there’s a vision for the class, I involve students in the details and formation. I’m a strong proponent of relationship-based pedagogy, and this particular class is just that.”

Humanities - Prelaw major Abby Girardot enrolled in Blackburn’s class for the chance to partner with community organizations. She anticipated the class would lead to portfolio pieces and professional development opportunities that would be helpful once she graduates and goes on to graduate school in 2021.

Girardot was one of two student liaisons who coordinated work between WRA331 teams and Riebschleger. She presented the web content students created, conveyed feedback and revisions, and facilitated ongoing conversations about what the client needed.

“This project showed me that every bit of effort can make the difference between a project being successful or not, especially when working with others,” Girardot said. “As a team, we had to navigate the uncertainties and needs of a nonprofit while sticking to a deadline and maintaining a high quality of work.”

Senior Ariana Guerrero was the second class liaison. The fisheries and wildlife major said she took the class to learn basic writing and communication tools for working with nonprofits.

“I was excited to contribute to an organization that could use a helping hand and was doing a great deed for teens,” she said. “Outside of learning basic English skills and becoming more confident with my writing and editing, I learned the importance of teamwork and having a team that is willing and able to make a difference.”

Engaged partnerships

Sarah Swierenga serves as co-principal investigator with Riebschleger on the research and community-outreach project and is the director of usability/accessibility research and consulting with MSU’s Office of University Engagement. She is a professor of courtesy in the Department of Media and Information in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.

From the start, Swierenga said the mental health project was committed to serving youth from their vantage point and to engaged scholarship at the university. Involving Blackburn’s undergraduate students was a testament to that commitment and to the value of cross-departmental collaboration.

“This project is a great case study of how true university collaborative, co-created partnerships can work,” Swierenga said. “It also is a great example of how you can involve and train MSU students to approach real-world, complex problems.”

Going forward, Riebschleger said she is confident that youth accessing the Mental Health Info for Teens website will find genuine connection and hope in the content fine-tuned by Blackburn’s students. She also noted the collaboration was among the best she has experienced in her 20-plus-year career as a social work faculty member and community practitioner.

“So far, everything has been very well-received,” she said. “Clearly, this is an exemplary example of creativity and outreach toward helping meet community needs.”

For Blackburn, the project presented an opportunity to involve students in the learning process while allowing them to develop the practical and soft skills they need for success.

“This class is a great opportunity to marry theory with practicality,” she said. “My goal is to give students the chance to produce real work for real clients and to see that their work has significance and does good things for the world. That’s important.”

By: Kim Popiolek