ARTICLE BY OLIVIA GRIDER | PHOTOS BY MARY GRACE RODEN AND KRISTEN WALLACE
University of Alabama student Rob Davis says a class he took in Spring 2017 gave him a voice, especially related to issues of race and poverty, and changed his perspective of people with disabilities. As part of the course, Davis volunteered with an organization that provides after-school care and vocational programs for children and young adults with autism.
“The things I learn from the people at Arts ’n Autism show me that I have been completely wrong about people with autism,” says Davis, a junior from Monroeville, Ala., majoring in marketing. “They are some of the happiest people I have ever met. They do not complain about their situation, and we all can learn something from their view on life.”
The course, SPE 100 Exceptional Lives in Society, introduces non-education majors to characteristics of cultural diversity, exceptionalities and social/behavioral issues in the 21st century. Students research and discuss poverty, education, race, health care, domestic violence, disability and mental illness. Members of the Fall 2016 class also discussed the presidential election and analyzed the candidates’ stands on various issues.
“I noticed that the students had a difficult time engaging in discussions about the topics,” says Dr. Sandra Cooley Nichols, course instructor and an associate professor of special education. “I worked to create a safe environment that allowed us to talk about the issues, their causes and what the students can do to improve the situations. They became more cognizant of their responsibility to ‘do the work where they are’ and that ‘every little bit helps.’”
During the 2016-17 academic year, 106 students took the course and dedicated more than 2,120 hours to serving nonprofit and community organizations. In addition, students attend at least five community events such as council meetings, school board meetings and speaker presentations or forums. Class assignments require students to reflect on their volunteer hours and the community events they attend in relation to topics they explore through the course.
Students in both the fall and spring classes also decorated rocks with uplifting words and art and hid them on campus, hoping to brighten someone’s day. The idea for the UA Rocks project grew from the popular 901 Rocks and 910 Rocks initiatives, Nichols says.
“The premise supporting the initiative is to cultivate joy and inclusivity on campus,” she adds.
To aid people in finding the rocks, students created Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts with photos of the rocks and hints about their locations. When a person finds one of the painted rocks, he or she can keep or re-hide it.
“The students embraced UA Rocks as a way to start conversations about various topics, which will ultimately lead to action that enhances our community and the world in which we live,” Nichols says. “We also believe that this simple act of kindness will enhance basic social interaction on campus.”
Octavious Lockhart, a senior from Valley, Ala., majoring in management information systems, says he wanted to spread a message of hope with the project. “We as a community have to stick together instead of going against each other,” he says.
Students also conducted small-group or individual analyses of four social problems and provided possible solutions. Nichols says that while all students were interested in making a difference, the assignment revealed that misinformed views and fear of the unknown often hampered their ability to be socially and ethically responsible stewards.
“The class helped me learn to lend a hand to anybody in need and try to be a speaker for people who don’t have a voice,” Lockhart says.
Davis says that as a young black man, he appreciated the opportunity to talk about issues surrounding race and poverty in a setting where his experiences were respected. People who have never been racially profiled sometimes think those who bring it up are playing the victim, he says. “Racism is a real thing,” he adds. “These problems need to be addressed.”
Davis also felt a need to advocate for those he worked with through his volunteer placement. “Growing up a black male in America is tough already, and some of these kids are black males, plus they have autism. Just think about how tough it’s going to be for them.”
Because the Fall 2016 semester coincided with the U.S. presidential election, students took on an extra assignment: analyzing the four candidates’ platforms and presenting their results. In groups, students examined the Republican, Democratic, Green Party and Libertarian candidates’ positions on subjects including the economy, poverty, education, environment, discrimination, world relations, crime, child abuse, health care, mental illness, abortion and disability services.Students listed the pros and cons of each position and created posters displaying the information they gathered. They presented their projects during a gallery walk and panel discussion.
Students end the semester with individual presentations summarizing how the information they learned in SPE 100 affected them and how they will become involved in enhancing their communities.
For more information about SPE 100 Exceptional Lives in Society, contact Dr. Sandra Cooley Nichols at 348-6226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.