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Integration of application and theory: Seminar works with Just Economics

Miles Kovarik, staff writer

The feeling of accomplishment that comes from applying information in the classroom to the “outside world” is exhilarating. Finally, those hours spent learning about things that seem mundane begin to take shape. For incoming freshmen, applying what they learn in the classroom is taking shape in the form of service.

Freshman students from three seminars are serving with a living wage non-profit organization called Just Economics, whose goal is to build up a strong base of support for living wage practices in Asheville.

Freshman students from three seminars are serving with a living wage non-profit organization called Just Economics, whose goal is to build up a strong base of support for living wage practices in Asheville.

Some First Year Seminars are approaching service in a new way this year. Three freshman classes are working with the advocacy group Just Economics in a project to spread living wage practices.

Just Economics is an organization that certifies employers who pay their employees a living wage. They have certified approximately sixty companies since beginning as a completely unorganized non-profit. The three seminars are working to increase support for Just Economics.

Michelle Kaiser, interim assistant dean of Service-Learning, explained how First Year Seminars are focusing on integrating their courses with subject related service work. Kaiser explained the difference between “integrated” and “co-curricular” service.

“Integrated service work is taking an economics course and serving in a field that relates well to economics. Co-curricular service work is when you are taking that same economics course and then serve at the Arboretum,” Kaiser said.

She explained why the integrated approach is preferred to co-curricular.

“Ideally, you want to tie in coursework with service work because when this happens people learn so much.”
The problem with this approach, according to Kaiser, is that it takes more planning because the logistics are difficult to work out.

“Ideas need to sprout out of the organization, coupled with time factors and busy schedules; it becomes more difficult to organize,” she said.

Professor Gary Hawkins, the director of First Year Seminars, teaches a seminar entitled “What Work Is.” In deciding what service element Hawkins was going to include in his seminar, he communicated with Franklin Tate, interim dean of Service-Learning, and Kaiser about the different types of projects in which his class could get involved. Tate turned Hawkins on to the non-profit Just Economics. Hawkins explained how he applies classwork to service.

“My seminar focuses on writing so it makes sense students are able to use writing to get feedback for the organization,” Hawkins said.

Three classes are participating with the advocacy group Just Economics. The work itself is not the typical service work of constructing, tutoring, or mentoring. Hawkin’s students, for example, are in charge of creating a feedback system for the organization. They are in charge of creating bios and acquiring feedback for businesses that are already certified. Some of the influence of working with this group comes from Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed, which is assigned in the class.

“I feel that this service opportunity gives students a chance to step into Ehrenreich’s world, the work world,” Hawkins said. “If you have ever read this book, you will understand the frustration of entering the world of wage labor.”

The program has not been without its setbacks.

“It has been a difficult experience because students have to contact employers who are themselves very busy,” Hawkins said. “This kind of work takes a lot of persistence, and we have to become more flexible and adjust to other people’s schedules.”

Sociology Professor Laura Vance’s class is working with Just Economics to create a slide show about the conditions of various levels of income. Just Economics is going to try and use this slideshow to persuade employers to pay their employees living wage. The three levels that Vance’s class is working with are minimum wage, living wage, and high income levels. Vance’s class is divided into these categories, and each division explained their individual experience in this theoretical experiment. The high income group explained how they were able to live comfortably with the amount of money they had after taxes. The living wage group also explained how they were able to live comfortably but only after they had “juggled around expenses” did they feel that they could live at a decent level. When it came time to describe the experience of the group who were paid minimum wage, the group quickly exclaimed how “it is impossible, or at the very least difficult to live at the minimum wage level.”

To experience the minimum wage level, Vance took her students out over the weekend on a mission to live the life of a low income family. In trying to live this life, the group only managed to complete the first task that they planned to complete because their mode of transportation, the bus, was an inefficient means of getting anything completed.

Sarah Osmer is the one full-time staff member at Just Economics, but she works with an eight people working committee. Osmer came to speak in one of Vance’s classes about her experiences with working for change. She explained how a living wage is $11.35 an hour or $9.85 with health insurance benefits. She said it is beneficial for companies to have a living wage because the turnover rate of employees decreases and the production of the workers increases. This means that less time is spent on training employees and workers perform better. Just Economics helped to get a living wage ordinance passed which made the state pay city workers living wage. Now Just Economics, led by Osmer, is working on an ordinance to extend the living wage to contractors hired by the government.

Outside of having to be in a seminar, Wilson students can also get involved with Just Economics service work.

Students who are interested in helping with Just Economics and possibly receiving service credit can help by joining committees that the organization has created. There are multiple committees to join including a certification committee, an education and outreach program, and a fund raising committee. These committees meet about once a month for an hour and a half. Another way to help Just Economics would be to buy a $10 yearlong membership. To contact Sarah Osmer about opportunities, go by the Service Learning Office and talk with Franklin Tate or Michelle Kaiser.

One of the important points that Michelle Kaiser explained about service within the community was to continue to support service work. Kaiser has worked with volunteer organizations in Asheville for four years and in her experience, she has found that there is a high demand for volunteers all around Asheville.

Other First Year Seminars with integrated service components:
Environment/Documentary Film – Students are filming with Asheville Green Opportunity Corps (Asheville GO).
Food Sources/ Food Security – Working with Black Mountain Community Garden, Manna Food Bank, the Men’s Shelter, Welcome Table in Swannanoa, Hickory Nut Farm.
Genetics & Society – Working with Bent Creek Institute
Religion and Agriculture – Working with a Buddhist organization near Hendersonville.
Humans and Nature – Trips Joyce Kilmer State Park and Smokey National Mountain
Animals in Society – Working with Wildlife Care Center at Lees McRae


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