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Beyond facts: service-learning and Asian history.


Study of East Asian history in a community college survey course can be effectively enhanced and deepened by including appropriate service-learning assignments. Three model sites--the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, and Portland Community College's Student Success Center--have provided students the opportunity to experience another culture and develop a personal awareness and appreciation for it.

How many of us in America can identify the central issues in Chinese history or have basic knowledge of the major dynasties? How many of us know the characteristics and rationale of the Tokugawa regime? The amazing population of China; the intense relationship between the U.S. and Japan in the past 150 years; the volume of trade between the U.S. and both of these countries: all argue for an introduction to the history of each. To address this need, Portland Community College (PCC) offers East Asian history as a specialized course in the History of Eastern Civilizations sequence.

The challenge in this course, even though it is considered a "specialized" topic in the community college setting, is to cover broad swaths of history in a meaningful and memorable manner--all in an eleven week term. The "facts" are essential, but essentially boring if the student were simply to memorize essential facts. And indeed, learning just the facts would not meet PCC's overarching goals for students. PCC has included in its formal philosophy statement that "a prime mission of the college is to aid in the development of educated citizens. Ideally such citizens possess ... appreciation of history both from a global perspective and from a personal perspective, including an awareness of the role played by gender and by various cultures.... "More specifically, listed in the core college outcomes, are goals that go beyond the "facts" in any given discipline:

* Graduates of Portland Community College should be able to demonstrate an understanding of the varieties of human cultures, perspectives, and forms of expressions as well as their own cultures' complexities.

* Graduates of Portland Community College should be self-appraising in applying the knowledge and skills they have learned, examining and evaluating personal beliefs, and comparing them with the beliefs of others.

While I employ various techniques in an attempt to add affective and reflective dimensions to these survey courses, none have been more effective than service-learning assignments. Servicelearning, for those unfamiliar with the terminology, is a teaching method that connects students with a community organization so that the student not only renders useful volunteer and civic service but also learns concepts related to course work in a practical manner.

Much has been written on the value of service-learning projects to enhance and deepen students' learning experiences while benefiting the larger community, but very little has been written with specific regard to the possible connections and partnerships to the Asian-American Community (Choi and Cheyfitz 26). And in fact, very few courses focused on Asian American Studies incorporate service learning as a teaching strategy (Choi and Cheyfitz 28). This is not exclusively true. Dr. Glenn Omatsu, for instance, has connected his students in the Asian American Studies program at UCLA to local Asian-focused social justice and labor movements (Omatsu 4; Choi and Cheyfitz 25, 26, 76-80). At the University of Pennsylvania, one advanced seminar entitled "Chinatowns, Koreatowns, Little Tokyos--Ghettoes or Communities?" included service learning in connection with the Asian Arts Initiative and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Choi and Cheyfitz 29). In another notable endeavor, instructor Ajay Nair assigned a group of ten college students and ten local high schools students to an intense project planning curriculum in a Philadelphia School District second grade classroom (Nair and Nakiboglu 2, 3; Choi and Cheyfitz 30, 31). On a grander scale, the International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership (IPSL) places students from mostly four-year colleges in international settings for a semester where they engage in service learning projects in the host countries (Tonkin and Quiroga 131-133; Tonkinl-3; Daynes 1, 2). In all cases, qualititative responses from students have been overwhelming gratifying (Nair and Nakiboglu 8-11; Choi and Cheyfitz 30, 31; Tonkin and Quiroga 138-141).

While all of the above-mentioned programs and courses provide leadership and innovative ideas, none exactly provides a model for a community college setting, with its survey courses, its brief terms, and its students with many demanding life obligations beyond the classroom. It took some research and experimentation to find appropriate, course-related sites that would fit our needs, so it did seem a real achievement when students' culminating essays began to report back their positive experiences. Indeed, more than the other option open to students (a research paper), this service-learning assignment best meets the diversity objectives of PCC's educational goals.

To complete the assignment, a student must volunteer for ten hours at the given site; must keep a reflective journal; must write an essay including information about the site, her activities, and her experience there; must be evaluated by the site; and then must share the experience with her classmates. Generally in a class of 25-30 students, between one and five will opt for a service-learning project. Three local sites have emerged that consistently seem to offer the most meaningful experiences to these students. I will discuss each of these sites in turn and offer student comments which illustrate their experiences.

Portland Classical Chinese Garden This institution is the pride and joy of Portland (and I highly recommend a visit!). From its website ( "The mission of the Portland Classical Chinese Garden is to create an oasis of tranquil beauty and harmony to inspire, engage, and educate our global community in the appreciation of a richly authentic Chinese culture."

The garden was established after years of planning in cooperation with one of Portland's sister cities, Suzhou, famed for its many beautiful scholar gardens. Students who have volunteered in this venue have performed a variety of activities: one helped design curriculum for young children; some have assisted with special festivals, helping young children with art projects such as making kites and lanterns. The most common assignment, however, has been simply to greet visitors at the door and take their tickets.

One might ask: how does this contribute to learning in a college course of East Asian history? The answer, as you will see from student comments below, is that it adds a great experiential dimension to the appreciation of the Chinese culture. The task requires acquaintance with the mission and basic concepts and functions of gardens in Chinese thought. It brings to life themes in the course: the importance of scholars throughout Chinese history; the yin/yang concept; the appreciation of nature. Below are a few representative comments from students who have volunteered in this location (note: all students' names have either been omitted or changed and minor grammatical or spelling corrections have been made):
 So much history is wars and dynasties and conflict. So rarely do we
 get to actually experience what the cultures we are studying have to
 offer in terms of leisure. The gardens represent many values that
 were important to the Chinese culture. One can learn a lot walking
 around and observing the elements in the garden--it is obvious the

 Chinese have great respect for nature.... When studying history it
 is easy to forget the everyday lives of people. Being in the garden
 reminds me of individuals, not just events.

 I have to admit, 1 was at first reluctant about my duties in the
 garden. I thought it would be boring and meaningless, but the more
 I talked to people and read the literature, the more I was able to
 appreciate the garden... Spring 2004

 I have always appreciated other cultures from afar, but this gave me
 the chance, even if it was only a taste, to learn and appreciate it
 a bit more closely.... Fall 2003

 What I thought was going to be mundane service turned out to be a
 growing experience for me. I have a greater respect for Chinese
 thought and culture.... Summer 2004

The Nikkei Legacy Center has been a particularly wonderful venue for Japanese students working in English as a second language. This site is located only a few blocks from the Portland Chinese Classical Garden ( Its mission: The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center will serve as a focal point for the preservation and sharing of the history and culture of the Japanese American community.... I have sent many students here, and they have received a variety of assignments. Here are some representative student comments:
 As a volunteer for the Center, I helped set up the area for a
 poetry-reading event, sold books, attended a board meeting about
 planning a Matasuke mushroom exhibit and hunt in the Fall,
 researched and drafted a press release, folded paper cranes with a
 local Japanese grandmother, tasted tea made with rice and otherwise
 just did odd jobs.... For me, though, the greatest part of being
 involved with the Center has been the little moments I get with the
 members of the local Nikkei community.... I loved asking the lady I
 was folding paper cranes with how long she lived in Oregon and
 suddenly her amazing life story came out to me unhindered--how she
 was born here and sent to an internment camp, but she got an inland
 job and was freed and saw the whole country ... Winter 2005

 Iris Nagano, the daughter of someone who had been interned, loaned
 a photo album to the center. I scanned about ten photos from the
 album, showing Iris' mother and other family members who were
 interned in one of the camps between the years of 1943 and 1945....
 To understand why the United States government decided to remove
 Japanese Americans from the West Coast in the largest single
 forced relocation in United States history, we have to consider
 factors such as prejudice, wartime hysteria, and politics. Equally
 as shocking as the internments is the information.., about the
 arrests of ... people in the United States, half of them Japanese,
 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Evidence of actual subversive
 activities was not a prerequisite for arrest.... This information
 changed my outlook about events that occurred after the 2001 terror
 attacks on the United States. After the attacks, I was caught up
 in the fear and prejudice against Muslims and I realize now that my

 fears were part of wartime hysteria. I am glad that I have had an
 opportunity to help the Nikkei organization preserve the memory of
 what happened to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, so others might
 come to this same realization.... Summer 2004

In all cases there has been a certain validation of their own culture in the context of the U.S., as well as an opportunity to communicate their culture to Americans:
 I think my work is kind of unique stuff than other students. I spent
 four hours to translate the interview. I didn't take any break
 because the interviews were so interesting. During the work, my
 manager gave me a cup of green tea, and I felt so happy by her
 kindness.... Although 1 established my requirements in this
 project, I decided to continue my work.... Before taking this class,
 I dislike the history class. Through the class and the project, I
 realized the importance of knowing the history. The most amazing
 thing for me is I started to like studying history. Summer 2003

PCC's Student Success Center is "an informal, open study area, with the added benefit of tutoring assistance. Tutoring is free for PCC students...." One of the many services offered are conversation groups for students speaking English as a second language. These are casual groups held several times a week where foreign students can simply drop in and discuss the topic of the day with others. The group is facilitated by a PCC instructor trained in working with students studying English as a Second Language. This has been a wonderful service-learning assignment for History of East Asia students. I believe that there is no substitute for direct communication between people from various backgrounds and cultures. My students have been welcomed as valuable participants in the discussion groups. They speak native English and offer a student's American perspective on the various topics of discussion--the group leader has made each of them feel that these have been important contributions. But clearly my students have benefited as well. Most have seen their own cultural presumptions challenged and admittedly have grown from it. Here are some illustrative comments:
 Apparently these students don't get the chance to interact much with
 people who speak fluent English. Well, I don't ever get the
 opportunity to interact with people of other cultures. I am very
 uncultured, in the sense that I have barely left the United
 States.... I really enjoyed hearing the cultural comparisons between
 the U.S. and other countries. I think ... we can learn a lot from
 just talking to one another. I think it is much more memorable than
 just reading from textbooks. In fact I enjoyed it so much that I
 plan on continuing to volunteer one hour a week during spring
 semester. Winter 2005

 With the conversation group everyone shares a different view of
 history, not the reported history that managed to make it into a
 book, but personal history.... I believe that the most successful
 thing about the conversation group is that it helps facilitate
 understanding and compassion between people who are superficially
 very different, but who are essentially the same. Winter 2003

 As Yukiko spoke about the way life was at home, I began to see my
 stereotypes for what they were. I can now see not only the beauty
 of tradition in Japanese culture, but also in the changing times of
 modern Japanese society. As I began to understand how I was seeing
 and stereotyping Japanese culture, I realized something else. As
 much as I love to work with people from other cultures, and as hard
 as I may try not to, I still make assumptions and have biases when
 it comes to other cultures. At first these disturbed me--how could
 I claim to love working with people from other cultures if I had
 judgments about them floating around in my head? Then it dawned on
 me-everyone has biases to some degree. The important thing is that
 you recognize this fact and try to rid yourself of them as they
 rear their ugly heads.... Most of all 1 am appreciative of the life
 lessons and the confidence I gained. I can now see myself working
 with international students as a career. Fall 2003

 I loved this opportunity to talk to these people. I do not have the
 privilege of knowing many people that are from different cultures,
 so this gave me an opportunity to see why they come to America and
 how they have been treated now that they are citizens. The most
 interesting day for me was when we talked about discrimination and
 their experiences with it. Most seemed to have something to say on
 the topic, which makes me feel embarrassed to be an American, but
 this is also a part of other cultures as well.... I have always
 thought that I was an open-minded person, but I noticed some of my
 prejudgments slipping away as the weeks went by. This to me is the
 most beneficial thing that I have gotten from this experience: to
 know that I judge people and that I should try to be even more
 considerate about people's personal situations.... Spring 2004

When students complete the History of East Asia course, they will have key concepts, issues, and historical facts lined up for a final exam. But those who have opted for a service-learning assignment in one of the above sites have also added an affective dimension and depth to what they have learned in the classroom, one that cannot be duplicated in a research paper. They have made a real contribution to the respective site. They have gained a valuable understanding of "the varieties of human cultures, perspectives, and forms of expression." They have shared the experience with other students in the process of reporting back to the class. It seems safe to claim that the students who engage in these service-learning projects emerge as citizens who more fully have "an appreciation for history both from a global perspective and from a personal perspective."


Choi, Christine and Dr. Eric Cheyfitz. Implementing Service Learning in Asian American Studies: A Recommendation to the University of Pennsylvania Asian American

Studies Program. (2002) 27 April 2006 < include/pdfs/Implementing_Service_Learning_in_Asian_American_Studies.pdf>

Daynes, Dr. Gary. Book Review. Service-Learning Across Cultures: Promise and Achievement, A Report to the Ford Foundation. By Humphrey Tonkin, et al. (NY: International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership, 2004). (Fall 2005) 7 April 2006 <>

Nair, Ajay T. and Hilal Nakiboglu. "Back to the Basics: Service Learning and the Asian American Community." Journal for Civic Commitment. 3 (Spring 2004) 27 April 2006 <>

Omatsu, Glenn. "Defying a Thousand Pointing Fingers and Serving the Children: Reenvisioning the Mission of Asian American Studies in Our Communities." (1999) 29 April 2006 <>

Nair, Ajay T. and Hilal Nakiboglu. "Back to the Basics: Service Learning and the Asian American Community." Journal for Civic Commitment. 3 (Spring 2004) 27 April 2006 <>

Tonkin, Humphrey. Culture, Socio-Economics, and Pedagogy: Researching the Divide. (2003) 30 April 2006 <>

Tonkin, Humphrey and Diego Quiroga. "A Qualitative Approach to the Assessment of International Service-Learning." Frontiers Journal 10:131-150 (Fall 2004) 30 April 2006 <>

Sylvia Gray, Portland Community College, Portland, Oregon

Sylvia Gray, M.A., is an Instructor of History
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Author:Gray, Sylvia
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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