In front of hundreds of university representatives, TTU graduate Lindsay Barnes spoke about Tennessee Tech’s work on the White House’s interfaith service learning initiative.
“I talked about what we did and how we went about the project, as a public school in the Bible belt,” said Barnes, who graduated in May. “I think people in the Bible belt are less accustomed to diversity and public schools need to tiptoe around the religion line because of the separation of church and state.”
Barnes was part of a panel with students from Howard University, the U.S. Air Force Academy, the University of Illinios and Georgetown University.
President Obama put out a call last year for universities across the country to participate in his initiative, which aims to build bridges between people of different faiths through community service.
“This whole year, I’ve been telling people that I intended for Tennessee Tech to be a featured university at this conference,” said Michelle Huddleston TTU’s service coordinator. “Never in a million years did I think it would happen. Then they called me. It was a thrill to the students.”
In Tennessee, TTU was one of five universities and the only public school to answer the president’s call to participate in the initiative.
“Interfaith for us took on its own meaning,” said Huddleston. “We started doing interfaith recruitment for all our programs. People really were learning from each other.”
In the past year, TTU’s Service Center has worked to build an interfaith element into all of its projects, which have included tornado relief efforts in Jackson County and a larger effort to catalog Upper Cumberland aid organizations that need volunteers, creating a single connection point between people who need help and those who want to give help.
Huddleston also partnered with faculty from the Colleges of Business and Engineering on an international service learning project that saw TTU students go to Turkey to engineer packaging and design marketing plans to bring Turkish products to the United States.
“It was my first time overseas, and it was nothing like I expected,” said senior Matthew Gursky of Gordonsville, who participated in the Turkey trip. “I really got some cultural awareness.”
Turkish students returned the visit to TTU over the summer. They did landscaping around a schoolyard at Free Hills in Clay County and built bowls for Cooking on the Square, a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity, at the Appalachian Center for Craft.
“It was good to see the students from Tech and the students from Turkey working together,” said Barnes, a sociology major.
She joined the interfaith service effort as a teaching assistant to sociology professor Ada Haynes’ cross-cultural diversity class. Haynes is the faculty adviser to the TTU Service Center.
During the spring semester, Barnes tracked the effects of the initiative on students and faculty. She helped to organize a panel discussion at TTU where people of different faiths spoke about their religions’ attitudes to service, and she collected surveys afterward from the audience. Fellow May graduates April Burnett and KayLynn Merritt helped organize the panel and also went to D.C. for the conference.
“A lot of the students said they came to the panel because they were getting extra credit, but they stayed because they liked what they heard,” she said. “A lot of the students realized that we are not all that different, especially toward the Muslim faith.”
“I was surprised by the amount of change we were able to see after just one semester.”