Magazine Feature / People

Fretz’s approach to service learning is academic

Eric Fretz’s service-learning approach is a pragmatic one.

DU’s new Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL) director says he embraces the philosophy of John Dewey and other early 20th century American philosophers who believed truth comes from what works. In particular, Dewey’s belief that the individual’s value comes through connection to society left a lasting impact on Fretz.

With this pragmatist influence, a dissertation on P.T. Barnum and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and several scholarly articles, Fretz brings a decidedly academic presence to CCESL.

Fretz replaces David Lisman, who started at DU in 1999 and helped form CCESL by securing grant money to build its many programs.

CCESL Associate Director Glenn Fee says Fretz stood out from other candidates for the job because of his strong academic background. He serves as a model for how scholarship can serve the community, Fee says.

Fretz’s foray into service learning began more than 10 years ago as an experiment in his first teaching job at Loras College, a small liberal arts college in Dubuque, Iowa. Fretz felt his students should experience something more than the traditional classroom lessons. This led him to restructure the undergraduate honors thesis by having students apply their academic learning to a community problem.

“It redefined my relationship with students because I became much more of a facilitator and manager rather than just transmitting knowledge,” he says.

Fretz saw improvement in the academic rigor of the thesis because students were writing and researching for a larger audience rather than a lone faculty adviser, he says.

Fretz’s full immersion in service learning didn’t begin, however, until he returned to his alma mater, Michigan State University (MSU), to teach in the American thought and language department.

While teaching in a first-year writing program where students provided writing services for organizations in the area, Fretz saw the success and challenges faced by a large service-learning program.

He says there is no one answer for connecting service learning to scholarship, but the most important thing is to start with desired learning outcomes.

“If a community-based experience will help a student come to those learning outcomes, then we’ll do it,” Fretz says.

After two years at MSU, Fretz and his wife moved to Colorado. He worked in the public achievement program at Naropa University in Boulder, where he taught a course that practiced classroom lessons on democracy through mentorship.

Fretz sees the need to build service learning into the DU curriculum. To help do this, he will collaborate with faculty and teach classes similar to those he taught at Naropa.

“The community becomes a laboratory in a lot of ways,” Fretz says of service learning in the curriculum.

He explains that student education improves when young people learn to negotiate with others and affect change, thereby engaging in democracy. Likewise, he says, the academy serves as a community resource.

Fee says CCESL is excited for this reinvigorated focus on democratic change and the additional training it will afford students. By teaching students to negotiate and engage, CCESL hopes to see students lead more initiatives, he says.

Under Fretz’s leadership, CCESL’s long-term plan is to refine its message and facilitate faculty and community partnerships, Fee says. Eric Fretz, director of DU’s Center for Engagement and Service Learning, hopes to build service learning into the curriculum.

This article originally appeared in The Source, September 2006.

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