Service brings deeper meaning to students’ classroom experiences at Detroit Mercy

University of Detroit Mercy participate in a food pantry as service learning.

Service learning is an integral part of many disciplines at the University of Detroit Mercy. During the 2018-19 academic year, students at Detroit Mercy Law provided 20,000 hours of assistance to residents of metropolitan Detroit through legal clinics. Detroit Mercy Dental students completed just over 77,000 patient visits that added up to more than $800,000 in unpaid care to underserved communities. The McAuley Health Center, an off-site clinic affiliated with the University, addressed the health needs of more than 1,100 underserved individuals of all ages.

The University’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center has, over its 25 years of existence, provided design services to more than 100 nonprofit and civic organizations, and hundreds of people in the community are regularly served by Detroit Mercy’s Counseling and Psychology clinics.

In addition to that impressive list, two service learning projects garnered attention in the media last year. Here is a brief look at them.

Helping a Nonprofit Help Others

Last year, students in the Detroit Mercy MBA program helped create an e-commerce business plan to sell hand-made clothes, bags, blankets and other home goods to raise funds for the Inkster, Michigan-based charity, Zaman International, and its clients. The plan was the culmination of a semester of work by seven Detroit Mercy MBA students as a class project sponsored by a grant to the University from the Ford Motor Company Fund through the Ford Community Corps Partnership.

“Zaman International has a community-driven approach to help households meet their needs and break the cycle of poverty,” explained MBA student Sarah Fioritto. “Their mission is to facilitate change and advance the lives of marginalized women and children by enabling them to meet essential needs common to all of humankind.”

Zaman, whose CEO and founder, Najah Bazzy, was one of ten CNN Heroes last year, offers classes in sewing, culinary arts and English literacy for women, to teach them skills that could help them earn wages. Some women end up designing their own items and selling them at craft fairs.

But getting the items to and from fairs is a logistical and expensive challenge; MBA student Nicole Fitch said that in several of her team’s visits to Zaman in person, students found how challenging it was for clients to make sales off-site. “Our experience taught us how important this would be to them,” she said. “This can help families become self-sufficient while working from home.”

Fitch’s team eventually chose Shopify, a web-based commerce platform, to allow Zaman’s clients to sell their products online without the expense and logistical hassles of working away from home and traveling to craft fairs.

Abigail DeMars, volunteer coordinator for Zaman International, said that the students received substantial hands-on experience on how to work with clients; how to respond to specific needs and requests; and how to make changes based on feedback. She said that the experience of working on a team to complete the project will also help prepare students for their future jobs in business.

Detroit Mercy’s Director of Service Learning, Rev. Tim Hipskind, S.J., said that the students’ work fulfills the mission of service learning by not only providing them a sense of accomplishment, but a chance to make personal connections with clients, volunteers and staff members at Zaman. “We like to think that Detroit Mercy teaches students professional skills – and something more. That ‘something’ is being graduates who lead and serve in the community,” he explained.

As a result of its work, the student group won the Empowering Marginalized Through E-Commerce $5,000 scholarship from the Michigan Colleges Alliance. “This service-learning project was very valuable for me,” said Abir Mouhajer, a member of the student team. “I am a firm believer in the notion that each individual has the ability to create changes in the community around them. Making even a small impression can change a person’s day, and possibly even change a child’s perception of their future.”

Winter 2019 was the first time that the course was offered. Since then, subsequent groups of students have continued to work with Zaman.

Faces on Design

A cane that can lift legs. A glove than can sense muscle commands. A programmable cushion designed to eliminate bedsores. These are only a few of the many assistive technology projects that have been designed and built by Engineering and Nursing students at Detroit Mercy for disabled members of the metro Detroit community.

Every year, Detroit Mercy Nursing students are asked to identify potential clients in their local community who have a quality-of-life issue that might be addressed with an assistive technology device. Last year, student teams presented three projects to clients at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center, including one project that was designed to reduce on-the-job injuries. This year, they have been joined by Product Design students from the College for Creative Studies, a neighboring institution, to design for four clients, including one who is a Detroit Mercy employee. Later this semester, the teams of students will present their products to their clients.

“This experience is truly transformational for our students,” said Darrell Kleinke, associate professor of mechanical engineering. Kleinke developed this capstone project more than ten years ago, and called it Faces on Design, for the way it helps students to see how their work has the ability to change peoples’ lives. In-person collaboration puts a face to the theories that students have spent years studying.

Over time, Kleinke has expanded the project to include Nursing students under the direction of Molly McClelland, professor of nursing. They bring different problem-solving skills from their own academic training. In recent years, Megan O. Conrad, Detroit Mercy’s Clare Boothe Luce Professor in the College of Engineering and Science, has played an important role with the development of the College’s Assistive Technologies Laboratory.

Clients say that the products designed — which cost on average of $1,000 to $2,000 and are funded by donations — will change their lives. The University hopes one day to partner with a manufacturer to produce some of the products.

“Having students apply the knowledge that they’ve gained from their education and use it in a multi-disciplinary collaboration to improve the life of other people is exactly what earning a college degree is all about,” explained McClelland. “It’s very rewarding to see students working together across disciplines and campuses to provide a device to help someone in need.”

— Original story by Ron Bernas for the March 2020 edition of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities publication Connections. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookLinkedInTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.