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Professor Sarah Harper and students in PHIL 256 Social Justice, one of UT’s first Experience Learning designated courses, engage in discussion about service learning and how it relates to their readings.

On her first day as a volunteer at East Knoxville Free Medical Clinic, UT senior Avanti Rangnekar dusted off her high school Spanish skills to translate medical information for a non-English speaking Latino family. She searched terms on her phone to translate between the doctor and family.

As a pre-medical student, Rangnekar—an economics major from Knoxville—has spent hours shadowing doctors in a hospital setting. But volunteering at the Free Medical Clinic has been an eye-opening experience.

“I see a lot of different populations that need healthcare,” Rangnekar said. “In Knoxville, like anywhere else, there are people that need healthcare but do not have access to it. These are not people that you would normally see in a traditional hospital setting, but they’re human. They get sick as well.”

Rangnekar works at the Free Medical Clinic as part of PHIL 256 Social Justice, one of the first courses to be offered at UT with the Experience Learning S designation for service-learning. Sixteen Experience Learning-designated courses have been approved so far—10 involving service learning and six involving research. About half of the courses debut this fall. Applications are now being reviewed and vetted to be included in the next group of Experience Learning designated courses.

Experience Learning is the university’s initiative that aims to give students more opportunities to be involved in civic engagement, solve complex real-world problems, and contribute to the welfare of their communities as part of their regular course work.

There are 10 undergraduate students in PHIL 256 Social Justice, taught by Professor Sarah Harper. They are reading a variety of texts that explore social justice themes. The students translate those ideas into action through community service work with Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries, East Knoxville Free Medical Clinic, YWCA Knoxville, and Bridge Refugee Services.

“It’s a very different type of learning for students,” said Harper, who piloted the class last fall and plans to teach it again in the fall of 2018. “They are used to volunteering, and they are used to classes. The point of this class is to serve meaningfully and to reflect on that service in terms of the theoretical approaches to justice that we are learning about in class.”

Harper, center, with Avanti Ragnekar, on her right, with other PHIL 256 Social Justice students.
Harper, center, with Avanti Ragnekar, on her right, with other PHIL 256 Social Justice students.

While service-learning is sometimes confused with volunteering, students in Harper’s class are discovering the difference.

“Up until college, I think anything I did that involved community engagement was actually just volunteering, and not service learning,” Rangnekar said. “With volunteering, there’s a very detached mindset going in. Service learning instead has an element of reflection and reciprocity. You take volunteering a step further by relating your experiences to your own life in order to better yourself and greater society. In this way, service-learning is much more intentional.”

KARM Crossroads Welcome Center Manager Steven Duncan said working with Harper’s class is an opportunity to “invest in young people’s lives.”

The students who worked with KARM during last year’s pilot session assisted in the agency’s finance branch, staffed the front desk, and even served as table facilitators in their classrooms. This year, they’ll do more of the same. Female students will also get the opportunity to work with clients at Serenity Shelter, KARM’s recovery program for women and families trying to overcome the problems that have led them into homelessness.

“I want the students to learn and grow,” Duncan said. “They may have a passion for helping the homeless that they otherwise wouldn’t have known. What matters is that they have a meaningful experience and that they learn from it.”

Harper said she’s looking forward to seeing what happens this semester; students in the pilot class seemed to learn a lot.

“The ones that really embraced the experience came out of it really profoundly impacted,” she said. “I was getting comments like ‘This is a life-changing course and really opened my eyes to a lot of issues.’

“I would like for students to gain a deeper understanding of themselves both as members of the Knoxville community and as members of the global community that will motivate them to continue to work for justice in their chosen careers.”


Lindsey Owen (865-974-0937,