Quixote-Quoting Sharpe Professor Lives His Dream

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Jonathan Arries believes William and Mary students must engage their world, change it and learn from the process. For the past five years, he has witnessed their effectiveness first hand.

Arries, associate professor of modern languages, routinely leads members of his medical translation and practice course (Hispanic Studies 483) to impoverished Eastern Shore farming areas. There, they help non-English speakers access services through the College's community partner Eastern Shore Rural Health.

"Probably as of last summer, William and Mary students assisted with 4,000 patients who didn't speak English," he says. "They helped them get medical services much more efficiently, and in some cases they helped people who wouldn't have gotten any services at all."

The course, embodying service-based learning, is transforming—for the Eastern Shore, for many of the students and certainly for the professor himself. Beginning this year, Arries, as the College's newly named Sharpe Professor of Civic Renewal, will help extend the benefits of service-based learning from a handful of upperclassmen to freshmen campuswide.

Newly named Sharpe Professor of Civic Renewal Jonathan Arries has seen William and Mary students go beyond volunteering into true advocacy.

Arries is excited by the Sharpe opportunity. Service learning—the keystone of the Sharpe Program—"clearly has gotten under my skin," he says. "When I am working side-by-side with a student on a project like this, there is nothing better."

Not that the concept makes teaching easier—in fact, it introduces greater pressures. On one hand, teaching students in conjunction with community service providers entails logistical legwork. On the other, student issues crop up: In many cases, students travelling to the Eastern Shore never had seen poverty up close—the poverty generated stress. Arries found himself mentoring, coaxing, cajoling students, often with references to one of his favorite literary characters, Don Quixote.

"Don Quixote does a lot of things that are goofy and foolish, but he also creates, almost by accident, incidental good that occurs because of the dream that he can sort of change the world," Arries says. "So, I tell students when they say they are overwhelmed, ‘When was Don Quixote overwhelmed? When did he give up? He's been beaten countless times, hurt all the time, and hungry, but he never gives up.'"

Although Arries admits that the service-based concept does not work for all students, few do give up. In the medical translation course, the primary fear most students have is that their translation skills are not up to the task; a notion quickly dispelled when they find out they are more fluent than the physicians and nurses providing treatment. "In many cases, they end up intervening in situations where they perceive lack of communication may result in someone not receiving treatment," Arries says. "They end up becoming more than translators; they become advocates."

The lessons learned run deep; they are absorbed, Arries believes, through opportunities for reflection. "Reflection is the key to critical thinking," he says. Students in the class live together in a dormitory provided by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science: At the end of what become very long days, "they come back and cook pasta, or something, and talk about what they saw." They are required to keep detailed journals. "And there is always that faculty member—me—who asks really thorny questions," Arries says.

"I think reflection is absolutely the most important component of service learning," he restates, "because people are perfectly capable of nice work without really understanding it in a deep way. The experience inspires the learning. The experience is not the same thing as the learning."

Arries has not accepted the Sharpe professorship lightly. When it was offered, he wondered if he were the best choice—others certainly have more experience with service-based learning models in Williamsburg, he explained. He names specifically Clyde Haulman, professor of economics, and Joel Schwartz, dean of interdisciplinary and honors studies, whom he calls "incredible talents" who helped shape the Sharpe program during its first years. As he begins planning his own contributions to the program, he will look to them for insights.

He will have other teachers: "Sharpe is an amazing opportunity to learn from students as the students are learning in the community," he says, explaining his own educational interest in "curriculum and instruction" (his master's is in Spanish and his doctorate in education). "My students are my lab."

He, no doubt, will learn much from his own immersion. The stakes, he knows, are high.

"It is a lovely thing about William and Mary; small groups of students can do amazing things," he says. "It's an incredible lever, this pool of talent." It is an incredible opportunity; a heavy responsibility. But it is true that Don Quixote never gave into doubt, he reminds himself, and that good things do happen around those who envision a better world.

Arries envisions such a place: a place where awareness leads to action leads to change. As he discusses the challenge, he turns the conversation back to his students.

"One never stops to ponder, when you're eating an orange, where the orange came from; or a tomato, if it's a tomato," he says. "After the students have served on the Eastern Shore, and they see what the farm workers are doing, they always—most of them—are able to look at the piece of fruit and think that the second-to-last-pair-of hands that touched these were those of a migrant farm worker. It makes them much more aware."