by Francisco Medina

The Peer Activist Learning Community

Many students at LaGuardia Community College may ask themselves, “What’s the point of learning?” They don’t see the relevance of the knowledge they are supposed to acquire in their courses. Thus, they aren’t motivated, and then struggle in their classes.

Dr. Eduardo Vianna with Ph.D. candidate Naja Hougaard and Dr. Anna Stetsenko of the Graduate Center put together the Peer Activist Learning Community (PALC) to address this problem. Inspired by the work of Anna Stetsenko, who posits that learning and identity are bi-directional, mutually constitutive processes, the group aims to help students discover and develop a connection between learning and the search for a path in life.

“Practically, from my experience as a teacher it was clear that students’ learning struggles were connected with their life activities, their pursuits, and future aspirations,” explained Vianna.

Based on psychological and critical social theories, the group engages students in a critical reflection of their motivation and attitude toward learning, discusses learning and life goals, and seeks to expand on the college experiences. PALC members engage in critical-theoretical learning to overcome conflicts, such as insufficient motivation to, interest in, and attitudes toward learning. More importantly, they develop a meaning or purpose in life. The group meets weekly to discuss ongoing learning and life experiences, read about critical social theories, consider current events, and help each other overcome obstacles.

Group members tend to become active learners and show improvement in academics, critical thinking, goal setting, connectedness, and leadership. Students also use the knowledge they acquire in the group to connect with course-related knowledge and their own situation, including how they relate with families, work, friends, and other nonacademic settings. Vianna said, “Those who become consistently involved in the group for a while expand their knowledge of learning and identity and how they see themselves, their place in society, [and] what they want from life.”

Michael Rifino, 21, joined the group a year ago feeling that learning was a burden and consequently worked below his potential. He was attending school to get a job and abandoned his dream of becoming an artist for a more “practical” career.  The struggle to find a job that would satisfy his practical needs consumed him and left little time for learning. Rifino felt detached from current events, and, therefore was oblivious to their impact on his life. All of that began to change as he began to participate in PALC and read about Karl Max’s Theory of Alienation and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Rifino said, “The Learning and Identity group has made my education meaningful.  Discussing what we learned has given me a sense of belonging in LaGuardia. I feel [now] a part of an active community. Reading critical social theories with other LaGuardians has opened my eyes to witness my true potential and ultimately made learning an exciting activity.”

PALC encourages students to find meaning in their education. According to Keiko Matsuura, “Doing academically well merely means that their GPA is high and not necessarily that their learning is meaningful or they use the knowledge to contribute to society. In our group you can be a little more critical.”

PALC also helps students become peer activists in education and beyond, supporting causes such as the fight for public higher education, budget cuts and social injustice. Most recently students protested tuition hikes and went to hearings held by the Board of Trustees. Meanwhile on campus students are becoming more involved in clubs, organizations, and motivating their classmates to do better.

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