Cura Personalis: Elizabeth Schmidt, Ph.D.

By D.R. Belz, '78  |  Photo by David Rehor
Elizabeth Schmidt

Elizabeth Schmidt is a professor of history who specializes in African history. She received her B.A. from Oberlin College and her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has lived and traveled widely in a number of African countries, most notably Zimbabwe and Guinea. Before coming to Loyola in 1990, Schmidt taught at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. She is completing her fifth book.

You invite students to engage in service-learning in your courses. How do you incorporate it into your pedagogy?

My scholarly work and teaching on African topics are deeply influenced by issues of political, economic, and social change. Over the past six years, I have transformed all five of my African history courses into service-learning-optional offerings so that my students can experience some of the issues they study. Among my service-learning courses are: “Women and Social Change in Modern Africa,” “Africa: Past and Present,” and “Conquest and Colonization in Africa.”

Do you find Loyola students for the most part willing to participate in service-learning?

Definitely. About half of the students in any given course elect to participate in service-learning. To date, more than 200 of my students have gotten involved, and the vast majority have been enthusiastic about their experiences.

What kinds of projects are your service-learning students exploring?

My service-learning students participate in programs that assist African refugees. Most work with Baltimore City Community College’s Refugee Youth Project (RYP), which runs several programs for elementary-, middle-, and high-school-aged students. Besides homework assistance and mentoring for all students, participants have helped high school students with SAT preparation and college applications. Others have worked as teachers’ aides in Baltimore City Community College’s Refugee Assistance Program, which offers free English language and literacy instruction to adults.

How do service-learning students integrate their academic and experiential learning?

Structured, continuous reflection is a critical component of any service-learning experience. After each tutoring and mentoring session, service-learning students write brief essays reflecting on their experiences and their relationship to the course’s academic content. I respond in detail to each reflection, encouraging the students to pursue various avenues of thought, investigation, or observation—as well as correcting misconceptions.

Do you find your service-learning students are typically involved in other community outreach programs through Loyola ’s Center for Community Service and Justice (CCSJ)?

Many of them had been involved in community service during high school, and many had prior experience in CCSJ-sponsored programs at Loyola. Typically, they are eager to do more. A number have continued to volunteer for RYP after the conclusion of their service-learning courses and have recruited friends and classmates to join them.

How do you see your service-learning teaching affecting the way your students view their role in the world?

They claim that their experiences have been life-altering—transforming their outlooks and career goals. Some have changed their immediate objectives, opting to study in Loyola’s Ghana program or to work with Teach for America, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, AmeriCorps, or the Peace Corps after graduation. Others have embarked on careers in immigration and refugee law, or social work with a focus on immigrant populations. Working with African refugee children has definitely expanded their horizons and reshaped their view of their place in the larger global community.

Read student reflections from their volunteer experience with the Refugee Youth Project.

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