Alaura Seidl can’t imagine life without community service. So when she enrolled in an art department that lacked a service-learning course, she created one.
“It seemed strange to me that there would be service learning classes at the university but none for art, because art is such an integral part of any community and culture,” said the art major who is also working on a certificate in gender and women’s studies.
Professor Gail Simpson teaches the new course, which was first offered this fall, with Seidl as a teaching assistant – a rare honor for an undergraduate.
Seidl’s years of experience and self-motivation led up to this project. In grade school, she tagged along when her mother volunteered at domestic abuse intervention agencies. She tutored and mentored at-risk youth, lead art projects for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities and even took photographs for Street Pulse, a newsletter that supports the homeless.
During her sophomore year at UW-Madison, Seidl found a way to channel her volunteerism to service learning through a “sustainability in business” class.
"I don't know why I took it – it just sounded interesting,” she said. “It had a service learning component to it and a light went off… and I thought service learning is something I would like to do."
The Morgridge Center for Public Service offered an undergraduate fellowship that Seidl received, giving her an extended view of the connections between campus and community. At the Center, where she still works, she has been responsible for assessing current service learning courses and promoting service learning across campus.
The combination of her fellowship and an independent study with Simpson gave Seidl the motivation to develop a course for the Art Department.
“What I noticed about other service learning classes was a sense of community inside the classroom and working on service projects outside the classroom,” she said. “I didn't know of anything in the Art Department that was like that, so I proposed that we have a service learning class so students could do internship-like activities working with community-based art and public art.”
Several other art students encouraged and advocated for the course that became such a success that the Morgridge Center is using the structure as an example for future service learning classes at UW and other universities, Seidl said.
The Madison Arts Commission, Madison Children's Museum and Very Special Arts Wisconsin partnered with Seidl and Simpson to give students in the class hands-on experience in the broader community.
“We heard about a few things that needed get done at a few community agencies and contacted them to see what the class could do to help,” Seidl said.
Students made pictorial codes, such as hand washing and paintbrush symbols, to comply with universal access needs around the Very Special Arts Wisconsin studios. They helped the Madison Arts Commission with a backlog of renovation and conservation projects around city and assisted with a food drive and art sculpture project at the Madison Children’s Museum.
“In a dream world, we'll eventually have many service-learning classes in the arts, and in every department,” Seidl said. “But for now, this is a really good start.”
photo credit Alaura Seidl