Experience Required


School of Social Ecology's field study program yields real-life lessons

By Rosemary McClure

Their stories are wrenching, but told matter-of-factly.

Wayne lives in the moment, he says, not because he wants to, but because a motocross accident injured his brain, causing seizures and robbing him of the ability to remember what happened yesterday, or even 20 minutes ago.

David, who also traces his brain injuries to a motocross accident, is troubled by aphasia, a condition that deprives its victims of their communication skills. “You know what you want to say, but you can’t say it,” he explains.

Today the two men – and several other members of Coastline Community College’s Acquired Brain Injury Program – are talking about the drastic ways their lives were altered when their accidents occurred. They’re also talking about Brooke Herd, a UCI student who spent months working with their class as part of the School of Social Ecology’s distinguished field study program.

“Everyone here would agree we wouldn’t be able to make it without Brooke and the other students and aides,” says one.

Herd, who received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Field Study, is among more than 900 students involved in the field study program, which partners with 233 community organizations, including Coastline Community College. The alliance offers students the opportunity to develop real-world, hands-on skills and gives organizations a chance to tap into UCI’s energetic talent pool.

Brooke Herd

The result? Annually, UCI students contribute over 106,000 community service hours in such diverse areas as corrections and law enforcement, teaching, mentoring, urban planning and civic affairs. Performance ratings put 84 percent of the students at the “exceeds expectations” level or higher.

At Coastline’s Newport Beach campus, field study participants like Herd help provide cognitive retraining for adults who have suffered a brain injury, either from a traumatic cause, such as an accident, or a nontraumatic cause, such as a stroke, tumor or infection.

Herd graduated from UCI this year, but today she’s back to visit her old friends in the ABI Program, who welcome her warmly.

She’s modest when asked to describe her duties: “I tried to help. I sat with students, and I took notes.”

A student quickly adds: “You did a lot more than that. You reminded me what I have to do next. I never remember that.” The comment draws laughs from the class.

Another says, “She’s right, though. Notes were part of it. When I couldn’t remember how to write, she took notes for me.”

Coastline counselor Kim Peterson joins the conversation. “Brooke was very patient,” she says. “There was a woman in her 80s in the class who had had a severe stroke and could never remember how to log in to her computer. Brooke wrote out instructions for her and repeated the concept dozens of times. But every day, she would have to help her log in. Then the next day, she’d do it all over again.”

Peterson and UCI professor Mona Lynch were Herd’s mentors in the field study program, which is set up to provide students with input from both a community partner and a university instructor. Peterson particularly lauded a paper Herd wrote about her field study, calling it “a perceptive and sensitive portrayal of how clients at her field site developed coping strategies for their often-significant limitations following brain injuries.”

Irvine Police Chief Mike Hamel

Developed in 1970, the field study program is a requirement for social ecology undergrads. Over the years, countless UCI students have not only benefited from the program academically, but also been able to use it as a springboard to enter various professional fields. Among its success stories is Irvine Police Chief Mike Hamel, who says it “was instrumental in shaping my career.”

That’s an important outgrowth of field study, says Ashley Vikander, program director. But “the aim is to provide an opportunity to practice and apply scholarship in the field, to study and address issues where they occur.”

Originally launched as a single three-quarters-long program, it has evolved into three distinct programs: traditional, advanced and immersive.

“Only by fully immersing yourself into the culture could you understand the everyday struggles of the less fortunate.”

The traditional one, in which Herd enrolled, requires 100 hours of participation during a single quarter; the advanced course requires a three-quarters commitment. Recent advanced projects have paired students with community organizations focused on youth shelters, affordable housing, gang diversion, low-income housing and food distribution.

Last spring, the immersive program was added, in collaboration with the UCI Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation. The 10-week program lets students do field work full time with groups that concentrate on alleviating poverty and social injustice. They may work in Orange County, across the nation or internationally. Recent projects sent students to Oxford, Miss., to work on a racial inequities program; to St. Louis to join teams promoting social justice and fighting racial discrimination; and to La Paz, Mexico, to work on urban development and public health issues.

The La Paz project, which took place in late spring and involved nine UCI professors and students, provided “a unique opportunity for both undergraduate and graduate students to collaborate with faculty and community activists,” says participant Connor Harron, who’s pursuing a doctorate in social ecology. He calls the trip “a powerful experience that was both personally transformative and meaningful for the community.”

Another student participant, Yen Ly, says the La Paz project “opened my eyes. Only by fully immersing yourself into the culture could you understand the everyday struggles of the less fortunate.” Another plus for Yen: “I developed close friendships with the people of La Paz that I cherish.”

Future field study trips to La Paz will build on the work accomplished this spring.

Most students, of course, do their field study much closer to home. But wherever the assignment, the program enables them to examine social problems and evaluate the merits of ideas presented in the classroom, learn how to conduct field research and data collection, develop interpersonal and professional skills, and participate in the ongoing activities of an organization.

In many cases, the experience helps students decide on a career path and eventually land a job.

One of the program’s role models, Chief Hamel, is a 20-year veteran of the Irvine Police Department who did field study there in 1992 while he was a senior at UCI. When Hamel began college in 1988, he had vague plans to become a computer programmer, he says, but changed his major as a sophomore to social ecology, with an emphasis on criminology, law & society. At the same time, Hamel scored a job at the campus police department as a community service officer.

“I loved my time at UC Irvine,” he says. “It was the most memorable period of my life.”

Then came the field study gig with the Irvine Police Department, where he worked in the crime analysis unit.

It “gave me real-world experience and strengthened my desire to become a police officer,” he says, calling the program “very rewarding.”

Building leaders like Hamel is an important goal of field study.

“The greatest benefit of the program to both students and the community is empowerment,” says Geoff Ward, Ph.D., who served as faculty chair of the field study advisory board for two years. “For students, this comes in many forms, including strategies for professional development.”

But perhaps more importantly, he adds, “field study reveals to these engaged students the importance and potential power of their voice in community and organizational life, inspiring their dedication and leadership.”

Ward, an associate professor of criminology, law & society and sociology, says the program empowers participating organizations “by bolstering their ability to achieve their missions, serve diverse constituencies and innovate.”

In the short term, he says, it benefits them via the ideas, outlook and energy that social ecology students bring; in the long run, it helps them cultivate young professionals and future leaders.

Herd, like many UCI field study veterans, would like to continue her association with the organization in which she served. This fall, she’ll begin pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology at Azusa Pacific University.

“I hope to be able to work with the ABI Program again as part of my graduate program,” she says. “Eventually, I hope to become a geriatric neuropsychologist and would love to work in Coastline’s ABI Program or something similar.”

During her recent return to the community college, Herd thanks the class for their time together. “I’m so grateful,” she says. “It means more to me than you’ll ever know.”

AT A GLANCE: SOCIAL ECOLOGY FIELD STUDY 2015-16

  • Students: 987
  • Community partners: 233, including 114 nonprofit organizations
  • Instructors: 45
  • Community service hours: 106,524
  • Service hours since 1970 founding: 2 million
  • Alumni: 21,000
  • Traditional field study (one quarter, 100 hours required)
  • Advanced field study (three quarters, 280 hours required)
  • Immersive field study (one quarter, 32 hours a week required)