Jennifer Torner Enriches Wisconsin Experience Through Community-based Learning

Step outside the classroom and into the community.

That is how Jennifer Torner became deeply rooted and involved with the practices of a Community-based Learning (CBL) course at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Designed to give specific classes on campus the opportunity to participate in a volunteer or community-engagement component while earning class credit, Torner took advantage of all its benefits.

In the spring of Torner’s junior year, she took a CBL course in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies whose curriculum is around food insecurity.

The course partnered with a nonprofit on the Southside of Madison called Neighborhood Food Solutions giving the students an opportunity to work with and understand the role urban farming can play in disrupting the cycle of incarceration.

“Through this class, ‘I was like wow, why haven’t I heard of this work before? Why haven’t I been introduced to this work’,” Torner said.

One aspect of the CBL course that Torner enjoyed was working with the former incarcerated and incarcerated community in Madison, meeting with them once or twice a month.

“I really loved how it was engaging and it wasn’t reading out of a book and talking about things in theory. Torner said. “It allowed us to go into the community to learn about their issues.”

To Torner, this completely new and unique experience lead her to want to contribute more.

“I had such a great experience with my Community-based Learning class and I thought it was such a unique way of learning and I wanted to be involved in expanding it on campus,” said Torner when she decided to apply to become a CBL intern for the next academic year.

In addition to applying for the CBL internship the following year, Torner’s CBL experience was also heavily influenced by CBL intern Mehak Qureshi, who made an impact on her experience in her course.

“Mehak did a great job of finding activities for us [students] and facilitating discussions to give us a safe space to talk and ask questions,” Torner said. “I wanted to be in the role that Mehak played and that’s what drew me in.”

At the Morgridge Center for Public Service

This past year, Torner joined the Morgridge Center for Public Service as a CBL intern and served alongside five other CBL interns including Qureshi. This time, Torner was on the other side of the spectrum facilitating CBL courses.

A lot of Torner’s work as a CBL intern involved problem solving and finding ways to relate cultural awareness to the community and students. For example, questions that Torner would raise with students would relate to culture competency. These types of questions would allow the students to think about individuals or communities that may or may not have the resources to excel as oppose to others.

One fond memory that Torner remembers while facilitating a class where students worked on affordable housing is when a student brought up a question on racial diversity and its impact on certain communities.

“I think that was a huge moment for me because I think that the student had never been able to ask those type of questions before,” Torner said. “It was a genuine moment and to me, it was clear the student was never able to talk about it in a safe space.”

However, moments like these don’t always exist in a CBL course.

Many times, Torner and the other CBL interns are faced with challenges around creating transparency surrounding a CBL course and what it entails.

“One of the things that we’ve been working on is making sure that professors are transparent on the first day of class about what it means to be in a CBL course,” Torner said. “We want to be able to tell students what a CBL course entails so they can see if it’s a good fit for them.”

Making sure that students are well-prepared before diving into a CBL course has taught Torner to adapt her training and responsibilities accordingly to ensure that students have the right mindset when working with diverse communities.

And while there are many challenges and memories that Torner has encountered as a CBL intern, it has only reaffirmed her love for teaching and community building.

Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in international studies, the Cedarburg native hopes to use the skills she has gained as a CBL intern to help her better understand the importance of international policy and how it affects communities.

“I’m constantly learning at what I can do to better understand communities and the impact they are creating for one another,” Torner said. “Community-based Learning has shifted my understanding of what I want to do in my career.”