The USC Joint Education Project used to send over 2,000 students to volunteer and teach in local schools as part of their mission to engage with both the community and current social issues.

Once the coronavirus pandemic hit, the service-learning program was faced with the same question organizations and businesses across the world were challenged with: what to do next.

In an ordinary year, JEP volunteers and staff worked directly with elementary students and community members in schools, local nonprofit organizations, healthcare facilities and legal clinics. With social distancing measures still in place, students and professors have worked together to make JEP work virtually this semester, though there have been some obstacles along the way.

According to JEP associate director Christina Koneazny, shortening the program from eight to six weeks was only one of many changes that had to be made. On top of working across time zones and dealing with technical issues, it’s simply difficult not having physical interaction with students.

“[You] can learn a lot from a book, but you can learn a lot more by experiencing the world around you and knowing what a rich, vibrant neighborhood USC has surrounding it,” she said.

Beyond changes in structure and timing, the focus of the program has shifted too. Weekly reflective essays are a key part of the JEP student teacher learning process, but this year, essay answers were different because they focused more on the issues of the world today.

“[The essay questions] address, ‘What’s going on in the world right now?’ or ‘What are your experiences like dealing with the virtual learning?,’ so even the reflective essays that we have right now are not typical,” Koneazny said.

Dylan Levene, a junior double majoring in geology and environmental studies and a program assistant and volunteer for JEP’s geology program, discussed some of the positive outcomes of switching to an online model.

“I think JEP does a really good job of trying to understand that there are issues with service and service-learning, and part of [JEP] is helping students recognize that,” Levene said. “This semester, we’ve really tried to get the student [volunteers] to think critically so they have to go online, do research, and understand and talk to people, rather than just experiencing it and reflecting on it.”

Levene also said that transitioning to Zoom has helped her and other students grow as both teachers and learners. Volunteers are now creating 10-to 15-minute long video lessons instead of traditional in-class teaching and lesson plans.

“I definitely feel that it’s just driven us to be a little bit more creative...I think it’s forced me, once or twice a week, to have to get on a Zoom with my groupmates and really collaborate with them,” Levene said.

Emma Case, a junior majoring in environmental studies and a student teacher for JEP’s Young Scientists Program, said that it is difficult to gauge the level of understanding that students in the class she teaches have when she can only see them through Zoom. In order to combat this, she created a simple system of holding up fingers.

“I started doing a ‘show me where you are on one to five’. One would be like ‘I literally have no idea what’s going on’, and five is like ‘I could teach this myself at this point Miss Emma, I’m good,’” Case said.

Despite curriculum shifts, JEP’s core goal of creating engaging, mutually-beneficial learning opportunities hasn’t changed.

Program assistant coordinator Aisa Castro said that making JEP feel like a community has always been a priority. Along with connecting USC students to their peers and members of the community and sparking a love for service learning, JEP also aims to inspire long-term engagement with both the program and local issues.

“I think this semester in particular was different because of the election...whatever happens next semester, we want to make sure that whatever social movements are happening, we always have a discussion around something very timely like that. So I want to make sure that we keep that awareness in our students,” said Castro.

For senior psychology major and central coordinator at Readers Plus Cecilia Nguyen, this semester has brought many challenges and changes to her role as a student teacher.

“This has never happened before in the sense that everyone had to flip the entire curriculum of what JEP will look like,” she said. “We had to essentially start over. All the original plans and lesson schedules that we had are geared towards in-person learning. We had to pretty much flip it on its back and start over.”

Though the switch to online has brought new challenges including difficulty with equal access to technology, internet issues, and communication barriers, being online has also had some benefits.

“I can tutor four students in a row back to back and they all live in different places,” she said. “So I think the reach is great now because with the internet you can pretty much reach anyone … I think that’s a great advantage.”

Another advantage of online teaching that JEP student teachers have been able to utilize is a new access to the wealth of information on the internet.

“Right now, if you’re my student and we’re talking about black holes … I would be able to share my screen and pull up a YouTube video and we can watch it together,” she said.

In addition to new learning experiences like these, Nguyen emphasized that — while many things have changed — JEP still provides a unique sense of belonging.

“We still are able to maintain that sense of community that JEP has always been,” she said. "So I think that’s something that hasn’t changed with the pandemic. We’re all alone and we’re struggling, but we’re struggling together. That kind of sentiment is very real … I love JEP for that.