Sociology Students Mentor and Bond with Local Youth During Capstone Project

Sociology majors work with the Lebanon County Youth Advocate Program on a project

Every student at Lebanon Valley College undertakes a final, senior capstone course in their major of study before graduation. Some, however, are more impactful than others. 

Rebecca Tanz ’17, a health science and sociology double major, expected her capstone course in sociology to be a classroom study on inequality, with a final paper and presentation to conclude her experiences. Through the work of Sharon Arnold, chair and associate professor of sociology, and the Lebanon County Youth Advocate Program (YAP), students instead participated in a high-impact learning experience that provided them the chance to mentor local teenage students at the YAP in a variety of capacities.

The capstone connection began during Arnold’s sabbatical in spring 2015. While her original project plan to establish an “Inside-Out Program” at the Lebanon County Prison did not come to fruition, through colleagues she connected with Robert Swanson, executive director of YAP Lebanon. YAP, founded in 1975, is a nationally recognized, nonprofit organization committed to the provision of community-based alternatives to out-of-home care through direct service, advocacy, and policy change. After several meetings to discuss the parameters of the course, Arnold and Swanson developed a program that benefitted both parties.

“The theme of the class is inequality, as it has been for 15 years,” outlines Arnold. “I have always known that I am not really exposing my [mostly middle class students] to inequality as it exists in the real world. Yes, we studied every theory that focused on poverty and its implications for achievement, health, well-being, and its chance of involvement with the criminal justice system…but could they really ‘see’ these patterns?”

The structure of the partnership with YAP divides LVC students and the youth from YAP into different group assignments, based on their individual skills. There are four groups—a mural painting, bicycle refurbishment, greenhouse building, and media and documentary group—with three or four students per group. The responsibilities of each group varied. The mural group, for example, was to finish the second half of a mural to be hung in Lebanon.

Tanz outlines her work as a member of the mural group: “At first, I was so focused on making sure we got right into our mural. I wanted to make sure we were using our time to be productive; however, I learned to be a little more patient, and that sometimes it is more important to connect with an individual than worry about getting the task done. I had to step back and realize that getting to know these kids, to be a good mentor, meant that it was more important to engage in conversation rather than get the mural done.”

Students spent half of their class time in a traditional classroom setting and the other half in the field with their YAP teams. 

Megan Arnst ’17, a health science and sociology double major, found benefit in the practical application of classroom learning: “Now, I can clearly see how poverty impacts the youth of Lebanon County and can apply this to youth across the nation.”

In order to participate in the project, LVC students were required to undergo complete YAP employee training, which included child abuse, criminal, and federal fingerprint clearances. These are essential clearances for the field and qualify students for professional work. When working with the YAP students, LVC students utilized their classroom training on the impact of trauma, stress, and chaotic environments on the developing brain to understand the kids’ behavior. Their final research paper requires that they integrate their classroom studies and models with their field notes at YAP.

“I think by learning different theories and concepts, we were able to use them to help explain what we saw in the field,” says Tanz. “Knowing that information enabled us to understand why an adolescent was acting a certain way. We were able to use that information to learn more about them and focus on the true roots of their problems.” 

Student responses to the course are overwhelmingly positive.

“I think that anyone can read something out of a textbook, memorize it, and then take an exam based on what you learned,” explains Tanz. “This class was different. We were able to learn certain theories and concepts, and then head into the field to get a first-hand look at how inequality and poverty affected young boys.”

Arnst emphasized the growth in her ability to serve as a positive role model for others, as well as her patience and cultural competency. 

The YAP students came to campus for a tour and presentation by Justin Lee ’11, one of the College’s admissions counselors, as a culmination of the project. The tour allowed the students to consider an opportunity many had never been offered before, and while here they asked numerous poignant questions regarding financial aid and the application process. 

“These are kids who have never been told that they will go to college. They have no role models of success in their social group; several said they did not even know where a college was located,” discusses Arnold. “They are bright kids and I think that at least an idea of an opportunity opened for them. Opportunity does not exist unless one can first conceptualize it.”

The doors of opportunity also opened for LVC students, who will build on the already strong relationship between YAP and the College.

“Five of our students are interning with YAP this spring of 2016 and four others are working part time with YAP. Other students have indicated that they will work with YAP after graduation, either here or in their hometowns. One student earned an internship with the Lebanon County Parole and Probation office as a result of this project,” adds Arnold.

Arnold plans to continue the project next fall in the capstone course. While the assignments will be different, the primary job of the LVC seniors will be to serve as mentors and role models to the YAP youth.