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The Micah Program
Where students from all majors live, study and serve together
Read about the program's Mission and History

Brian and Sr. Regina

Mission

The Micah Program is a nondenominational faith-based learning community of Saint Louis University. Integrated around themes of justice and peace, it takes its name from the Biblical prophet Micah, who spoke out against social inequities in ancient Israel. The three primary aims of the program are:

  • To foster a sense of community by encouraging freshmen interested in community service to participate in an enriched program of activities and to live together on-campus on two special floors of Marguerite Hall.

  • To offer several interdisciplinary courses that are integrated around issues of social injustice and that fulfill some of the university's "core" requirements for most majors,

  • To deepen understanding of such issues by serving and working alongside the poor and the disadvantaged in areas near the university.

History

The program grew out of an initiative in the mid-1990s by then Academic Vice President Michael Garanzini, who is now President of Loyola University in Chicago. He wanted to find ways to strengthen links between the residence halls and the classroom and between the university and the lively but struggling urban neighborhoods around it. Noting that many contemporary college students seem withdrawn from the troubles of the surrounding society, Fr. Garanzini proposed creating service-learning courses that would challenge freshmen to confront problems of the American inner city. He also proposed that students in these courses live together, so that discussion of urban problems and collaboration on academic and community-service projects might spill over from the classroom to the residence hall and to the students' service sites.

In the fall of 1995, Dean Shirley Dowdy of the College of Arts and Sciences selected four faculty members to devise and teach the first courses. The core faculty was Gregory Beabout (Philosophy), John Cross (Psychology), Fr. Wayne Hellmann (Theological Studies), and Donald Stump (English). The program that they created, with advice from the Dean and representatives of several university departments, admits up to forty-five freshmen each fall. In the course of their first year, they live and perform community service together and take at least three special sections of University Core courses, each one specially designed to explore urban social issues as well as the more traditional material covered in such courses.

In the fall of 1996, Prof. Stump was chosen to serve as Director. Working closely with an Advisory Board consisting of students, the core faculty, and administrators from Residence Life and Campus Ministry, he arranged the renovation of a special area in a residence hall to students in the program. Over the next two years, he also set up a program office, negotiated the purchase of a van to transport students to their service sites, and undertook an extensive publicity campaign, including press releases, mass mailings, and the creation of a website. Since incoming freshmen must commit to the program before they receive their housing assignments and sign up for classes, Prof. Stump also organized an ongoing, nation-wide effort to recruit high-school seniors with a commitment to service learning and an interest in urban problems. 

Besides handling such practical matters, Prof. Stump also consulted experts at the University and leaders in neighborhoods near the campus in order to devise a program of community service and academic reflection that is attractive to students, intellectually rigorous, and responsive to the needs of the surrounding area. Four steps were fundamental to the program's development:

  • To engage contemporary urban problems in their full complexity, faculty were encouraged to devise new ways to carry out interdisciplinary study in fields as diverse as Philosophy and Sociology, Theology and Public Policy, Psychology and Social Work; 

  • A full slate of extra-curricular activities was devised to encourage where friendship and common purpose might lead to fruitful collaborations in their academic studies and their service; 

  • A single neighborhood was "adopted" as the site for our service program, so that students might develop networks of personal relationships with residents, work collaboratively with them, and share a common, manageable area for academic research; 

  • The faculty and staff also undertook to provide opportunities for study and service beyond the freshman year, so that students might deepen their friendships and develop the sort of leadership skills and habits of community involvement that require sustained nurture. The program that has emerged is highly successful. Many students who have enrolled in our Freshman-Year Project since the fall of 1997 are still engaged, performing service each term and attending activities such as weekly Community Night meetings, lectures, and social events. 

Currently, there are approximately two hundred and twenty-five students active in the Micah Program. They come from all over the United States, and from other countries, and are studying in over thirty majors, from Aviation to International Business and from Biomedical Engineering to Theology. Since the inception of the program, its part-time staff has grown to include a full-time Program Coordinator, two organizers of weekly meetings drawn from Campus Ministry, a Residence Hall Coordinator from Residence Life, three Senior Interns, student workers, and Residential Advisors for the floors that we occupy.

As currently constituted, The Micah Program has three interrelated aims: to form a faith-based learning community that develops leadership and promotes long-term social and political engagement, to encourage intensive study of urban problems, and to provide extensive and sustained service to a neighborhood vital to the stability of midtown St. Louis. Following are details of the ways in which we carry out these aims: 

  • The faith-based learning community: Students generally take at least three introductory courses together in their freshman year. If they choose, they may then take as many as eight other, more advanced courses in subsequent years. With the exception of a few commuters, the freshmen live together on floors in a large residence-hall complex, often continuing there for a second year before moving to an apartment or another residence hall in their third and fourth years. Though bonds are close, we encourage the freshmen to be fully engaged in a variety of other activities on campus. They are required to come together for an hour each week for what we call "Community Nights," which are planned mainly by the staff for the first year and then gradually turned over to the students to organize in subsequent years. Some of these meetings involve discussion of social issues and prayer and reflection on our experiences in the neighborhood. Others involve talks by visiting speakers and a variety of social events. The Micah Program also sponsors retreats and large-group service projects.

  • The study of urban problems: The Micah Program curriculum has expanded from the initial list of four 100-level courses to include 200- to 400-levels. These more advanced classes are taught in rotation by six departments: Philosophy, Psychology, Public Policy Studies, Social Work, Sociology, and Theological Studies. They may be taken for credit toward a Interdisciplinary Minor in Urban Social Analysis. Before undertaking these advanced courses, freshmen take at least three introductory courses their first academic year, which are taught in interdisciplinary pairings at successive periods. This arrangement allows faculty to use blocks of up to two and a half hours for team teaching, but also keeps courses distinct, so that the instructors may adjust the degree of their interdisciplinary collaboration to suit their needs. In the fall term, an introductory Theology course in concepts of peace and social justice in the Judeo-Christian scriptures is paired with a Philosophy course in the same concepts in Greek philosophical texts.

  • The service: We currently serve in numerous community organizations in the Historic Shaw Neighborhood and other areas near the Frost and Health-Sciences campuses of the University. The Micah Program students act as tutors and mentors in public schools. They help to lead church youth groups, teach bicycle and computer repair to young people, and provide day-care for infants and disabled members of low-income families. They assist with court-mandated parenting classes, and work with the Neighborhood Improvement Association. Students serve at least thirty hours a term and have opportunities to reflect on their experiences in Community Night meetings, classroom discussions, and written assignments in their Micah Program courses.

Pursued together, these three main activities of the program have proved extraordinarily effective in imparting to freshmen the knowledge and the skills needed to conduct research and to take action in a complex social situation. The Micah Program courses are also unusually productive and satisfying to teach. Since students know one another well and are highly motivated, an adept discussion leader can elicit responses from 80-90% of the class rather than from the 40-60% who might speak up in more conventional courses. Administrators have also responded quite favorably to the program, both because of its effectiveness in recruiting and retaining students and because of its value for students and residents of the surrounding area. The program served as one of the main experimental models for Saint Louis University's SLU-2000 initiative, which involved the hiring of thirty-two new faculty members. A key aim of the initiative was to encourage learning communities that engage students in interdisciplinary study and that incorporate first-hand experiences in the city of St. Louis along with more traditional classroom study. 

During the first three years of the program's existence, our students were heavily involved in the development of the program, suggesting many useful adjustments and promoting several major new initiatives, including a large Halloween party and a sustained mentoring program for neighborhood children. They have maintained an exceptionally high level of enthusiasm. In recent annual evaluations, virtually all the freshmen commented on its importance in easing the transition to college life and in encouraging close friendships with others who share a commitment to social justice and community service. Participants were grateful for our small, highly interactive classes, for the enhanced residential and learning environment that we offer, and for opportunities to experience real-world social problems at first hand. That the program had a deep, even a transforming, effect on many was evident from comments such as these:

"Micah has taken me out of my comfort zone".

The program has "caused me to question my goals and purposes" and "offered a new world; now I think about issues such as capital punishment, poverty, etc.".

"I can't imagine being at SLU and not being part of Micah".

"I believe the elements of the program have brought me closer to God".

"The forces working against peace and justice are many. The first step is to recognize and understand them".

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