March 11, 2010

University of Colorado’s INVST Community Studies and the Future of Higher Education

If I could go back in time and slip my 19-year-old self some advice, I’d leave a University of Colorado course catalogue open to the INVST Community Studies page. At that time in my life, I was a focused C.U. student and hungry to learn, but I felt lost and disappointed by the huge state university. My freshman year curriculum seemed to be made up of more memorization and multiple choice tests than conversations, and I ended up leaving school to work for a year before transferring.

Now in its 20th year, INVST is exactly the kind of program I was looking for—a curriculum that balances theory with hands-on experience, that would change the way I both asked questions and answered them, that would teach me how to engage with and learn from the world that surrounded me. Of course I had no idea that it existed, but as I hear more and more about students and administrations looking to revamp the way we teach and prepare our youth for life after school, I can’t help thinking that INVST provides an example of education at its very best.

Students work on a local reforestation project in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Students visit a local farmer’s Ejido in Cuernavaca to learn about agricultural issues.

“My most memorable time in INVST was at the end of our home stay in Tlaxcala, Mexico,” INVST student Erika Larson writes of her experience in the program, “After spending two weeks with my host family and learning of their daily struggles to survive on less than $30 a month, it was almost impossible to leave them. I had never really seen the human struggle for survival until I was able to compare my life in the U.S. to my host family’s lives in Mexico. Each year someone in their family risks his or her life to get to the U.S. in hopes of getting a salary that their family could actually survive on. It was hard when I realized that this wasn’t by choice but a necessity, in order to keep themselves and their families alive.”

The cornerstones of the INVST program are two month-long summer experiential learning trips. Erika’s experience in Mexico was part of the second-year international trip, which focuses on immigration issues and takes students to El Paso, Texas; Juarez, Mexico; and rural Tlaxcala. Through volunteer work at organizations like Annunciation House, which receives newly arrived immigrants in El Paso and Mujer Obrera women’s labor organization, tours with the U.S Border Patrol and local DEA agency, and home stays with a campesino organization in rural Mexico, students are able to arrive at their own conclusions, and questions, about the issues surrounding our border to the south.

According to Erika, the lessons she brought back from this trip heavily impacted the way she now relates to her university and greater community back in Boulder. “I will never be able to forget my host family and the relationship I built with them,” she writes, “As we were leaving we asked, What is the one thing we could do to help? They said that there are so many of their friends and family in the U.S. that are lonely and feel overlooked in your communities, we would love it if you would talk with them and make them feel like part of your community. I started to cry because this is something I could easily do, but had never thought of before my trip to Mexico. Everyday there are many C.U. employees that help our campus function but are often overlooked by the students and staff. Since, my experiences with INVST in Mexico, I always make an effort to acknowledge and appreciate every person that helps the C.U. Boulder campus.”

Just as the second-year international trip teaches students about immigration issues by putting them in direct contact with the people most affected, the first year domestic trip explores energy policy and its impact on the environments and people of the Southwest. On this trip, students visit coal-fired power plants, oil pads and pipelines and solar installations, speaking with the people who make the practical and political decisions about how we receive and consume our energy. On both the domestic and international trips, experiential components like a 24-hour wilderness solo are supplemented with heavy packets of reading material and nightly discussion and reflection sessions. Students say that these trips not only help to form a cohesive bond between each class, but also helps them to understand how the issues they encounter in their classroom studies relate to the greater world, why their studies matter.

Back on campus, students continue to gain concrete community organizing and non-profit management experience through internships with Boulder-based organizations. Alumni of the program consistently point out that their resumes are well-padded upon graduation, making it easier to find meaningful work. But in addition to professional experience, INVST gives its students self-reflective skills that impact their real-world lives well beyond the post-graduation job search.

“The INVST Community Leadership Program has given me the courage to step outside my comfort zone,” writes one alumnus from the class of 2000, Adam VanIwaarden, “It has taught me to be patient, attentive and compassionate when entering a new environment or community, especially one that is divided and in turmoil.” Another alumnus, Cara Hopkins from the class of 1998, writes that the INVST curriculum weaves together thinking and action in a way that has changed how she lives her entire life, “It is so comprehensive, so confronting, so challenging and yet so invigorating and refreshing that I feel like just now, five years later, seeds are blossoming from those experiences…in ways I never could have imagined.”

Students engage with media outlets to raise awareness about the issues they’re working on in their school-year internships.

Students visit the Colorado State Capitol.

C.U.’s INVST Community Studies offers a striking example of how higher education can use the resources of the greater community to inform its students, and use student work to help benefit those outside of the academic institution. True to its acronym, the program teaches its participants the power of being invested in a community or a cause, highlighting the personal development that takes place when an individual is willing to be affected by others’ struggles and open to their solutions. Both instructors and students point out that this is a reciprocal relationship—students learn skills that will help them to become leaders, but also learn how to be impacted and transformed by the communities with which they serve.

The frustration that I felt as a 19-year-old—feeling like the university curriculum only scratched the surface of human experience and knowledge, focusing more on grades than on impactful learning—seems to be a common experience. Nationwide, only 53% of college students graduate within 6 years of beginning their degrees (CU’s rate is a bit higher, at 67%). It’s not hard to see why—as student loans bulge, those paying them want to be sure that the skills they are taught in school will have direct applications in their everyday lives. As a result, students across the country are re-evaluating what and how they want to learn, while universities and professors scramble to keep their academic fields relevant.

As schools re-work their programs and universities cut their budgets, it’s important that academics and critical thinking don’t fall to the wayside. INVST is an example of how those theoretical tools can be made pertinent, and how students can gain more than academic knowledge from their studies. Above all, INVST embodies an ideal that once formed the basis of education, but seems to have been forgotten by many: that education is not a selfish pursuit, but a privilege that should benefit the greater world as well as the individual. As students, teachers and administrators re-evaluate the way they teach and learn, let’s hope they follow INVST’s example and keep this idea in mind.

INVST will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this weekend, with a Gala benefit featuring a keynote address by ele idol Hunter Lovins. You can find out more information about the event and buy tickets to attend here.

Merete Mueller is a writer living in Boulder, Colorado. You can find her at meretemueller.com

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