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Students learn the value of service as they live in a multicultural community

By Nisha Ajmani Wade ’02

Alex Montances ’06 spent his first three years at PLU commuting from his parents’ home in South Tacoma. Searching for something different his senior year, he chose to live in a nearby community he knew little about.

Montances and two other PLU students, Ruth Bennett ’06 and Whittaker Harpel ’07, are living and volunteering in Salishan, a Tacoma Housing Authority community in Southeast Tacoma.

Originally built in 1943 as housing for war workers, Salishan today consists of 900 units that house low-income and immigrant families, many who have lived there 20 to 25 years.

Montances, an anthropology major and sociology minor, said living in Salishan made him realize how much service means to him. He volunteers with a Cambodian dance group.

“The kids are like my little brothers and sisters,” he said. “That’s what’s really important about living here. It definitely changes anyone who comes here.”

In exchange for their housing, each student completes at least four hours of community service per week, ranging from volunteering at a Southeast Asian food bank to tutoring math at a local middle school. They agree the service doesn’t just benefit the community, but themselves as well.

Whittaker Harpel ’07, Alex Montances ’06 and Ruth Bennett ’06 pictured in front of their home in Salishan.

Harpel tutors math at McIlvaigh Middle School, helps out at the food bank and volunteers at Salishan’s community garden, where residents can grow crops.

“You don’t just come in and change things,” he said. “You just assist where you can.”

The program, which is in its third year, was started by professor of English Barbara Temple-Thurston as an opportunity for students coming back from Trinidad and Tobago to continue living in a multicultural setting. This year, for the first time, a class is being offered as part of program: Community Study of Salishan. While only three of the students live in the house, there are 12 students taking the course, which is taught by professor of anthropology Elizabeth Brusco and associate professor of social work JoDee Keller.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for students living in the house to serve as a link between PLU and the community,” Brusco said. “And it gets people to understand that there is all this multiculturalism in the community.”

The course also has a community service requirement. In addition, students plan four dinner talks throughout the semester where community members, including current or former Salishan residents, speak about their experiences. Hosted at the students’ house, the talks are open to the community.

“The course is really amazing,” said Ron Vignec, former PLU campus pastor and founder of the Eastside/Salishan Lutheran Mission. “It’s important because it ripples through the community.”

Vignec and his wife, Nancy, special projects officer for the Tacoma Housing Authority, have fostered many self-sufficiency efforts for the residents of Salishan, including drug elimination programs, the community garden, English as a Second Language classes and multicultural gatherings.

Vignec says he doesn’t look at the students living in the house as just students – they are part of the community. Bennett, Harpel and Montances say living in the neighborhood allows them to apply what they learn in class to their experiences in Salishan. It is different than living on campus, and they see firsthand issues such as poverty, racial divide and crime.

“It’s sort of like coming to the real world here,” said Harpel, an anthropology and history major who also lived in the house last spring and throughout the summer. “Everyone has to work to get through the day. If they don’t work, they don’t live.”

Although there is evidence of drugs and gangs, the students said they don’t see a lot of crime.

“It’s still present; it’s just not as big as people think it is,” Harpel said. “Most residents enjoy living in the Salishan area and think that what other people think about it is a little inaccurate.”

The students believe that efforts such as the Cambodian dance group that Montances volunteers for are helping make improvements by providing after-school activities for kids.

And while they said they see a lot of racial tension among the adults, it’s not prevalent among the children. Montances said the dance group combines many ethnicities – including Cambodians, Caucasians and Vietnamese.

He enjoys learning about Cambodian culture – and comparing it to his own Filipino background. “The music is so different from the Filipino folk dancing I used to do,” he said. “I appreciate it a lot more now that I’ve been helping the kids dance to it.”

Montances and Bennett both volunteer at adult English as a Second Language classes in the community, where they see different cultures working together to learn English. Bennett, a biology and history major, said the classes provide immigrants with an opportunity to connect with the country.

“Immigrants feel displaced,” she said, noting that not all residents of Salishan are immigrants. “They are stripped from everything comfortable.”

She can see how those in the ESL classes feel being around a language and culture different from their own. “It’s sort of displacing for us too,” she said. “Service is a good opportunity to connect with people you wouldn’t normally know.”

Changes are in store for the community. The Tacoma Housing Authority, with help from a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and other sources, is building new homes for Salishan residents.

That means people have to move out while the houses are flattened and new ones go up in their place. The result will be more than 1,200 new homes, offering affordable rental and home ownership, and new community facilities.

The students are watching the process begin around them, with people moving out of the houses on their street. Their own house is likely to be demolished after the spring semester.

As for the future of the program, Brusco and Keller hope to turn it into something similar to a semester-long international program – giving students a cross-cultural experience complemented by courses at PLU.

Keller said everyone involved in with program has learned a lot – including herself. “It’s been rewarding to see the transformation with the students,” she said. “You can’t live here and not change in some way.”

Some of the students say their time at Salishan has changed their plans after graduation.

Harpel either wants to join AmeriCorps or work in the education field – and learn how it relates to multiculturalism and different ethnicities.

Montances, who was planning to do contract archaeology in preparation for graduate school, is now thinking about putting it off and continuing to do volunteer work, perhaps with Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.

“I feel like doing more than just getting a job,” he said. “I want to do something meaningful.”



© Scene 2005  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Winter 2005

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