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 Faculty Member Impacts Lives A World Away

A study recently published in the Community Works Journal by NSU Assistant Professor James Curiel demonstrates the impact that service-learning can have on its participants, giving them a new perspective on their once-held beliefs.

Dr. Curiel, who served as a visiting professor at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, from 2009-12, had his Sociology of Inequality class participate in a service-learning project as a way of bringing the sociological concepts and skills that they were learning to life in the real world. The students, who were predominately from the wealthiest Egyptian families, worked with members from the most impoverished families in that society who were illiterate and made their living by recycling materials from the rubbish they collected.

The experience changed the students’ preconceived notions about the Zabaleen people. It was perceived that this group lacked interest in education. They have an illiteracy rate of approximately 52 percent and many of the children work full time to help support the family instead of attending school. What the students found once they actually visited the area where the Zabaleen live and work and had the opportunity to conduct surveys changed them forever. “The research held up a mirror to the rest of Cairo that said, ‘Your attitudes towards these people are the main barriers to their kids not getting an education,’” Dr. Curiel said.

Instead of finding the Zabaleen disinterested in education, the students found just the opposite—that the community did, in fact, value education. However, widespread discrimination held back the community’s children from pursuing a high school education. While the lower grade schools are within their community, all the high schools were outside of it. “They face intolerable discrimination outside their neighborhood,” said Dr. Curiel. The students discovered that rather than have better transportation to the outside high schools, the Zabaleen would rather have a high school within their community. The students also learned that when it came to garbage collection, the Zabaleen wanted residents to separate their recyclables from their garbage.

“I am an advocate of action learning, and I hope to integrate community research into my classes,” said Dr. Curiel. “Never underestimate the power of what you learn in class to change the world when you practice it.”

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