When the 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand, on February 22, 2011, it toppled buildings, buried cars under debris, and killed 185 people. It also closed the University of Canterbury for a month, presenting its more than 20,000 students with the opportunity to pitch in and help with cleanup and immediate relief. Over 9,000 students did help by organizing themselves over Facebook into the Student Volunteer Army, and one quick-thinking faculty member—Billy O’Steen (M.Ed. ’94, Ph.D. ’00 English Ed)—devised a way to harness their enthusiasm for serving their hard-hit community and combine it with academic coursework. By the following semester, he had developed an innovative new course called Rebuilding Christchurch: An Introduction to Community Engagement in Tertiary Studies.
“It’s an opportunity to reflect on their experiences of quake relief and tie those experiences to their areas of study,” O’Steen says. Through reading texts on the topic of volunteer service, students are also challenged to critically examine issues related to community engagement.
Amidst the rubble, liquefied land, and eventual rebuild that is Christchurch after the quakes, there is a strong connection to the Curry School.
O’Steen, a senior lecturer in Canterbury’s College of Education, was working over lunch in his second-story office when the ground began shaking. It was the second big quake in six months. A magnitude 7.1 earthquake in September 2010 had hit at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning, O’Steen says, and its epicenter was much further from the main population center of the city.
In his office, books flew off shelves, file drawers opened, and his Mac desktop monitor tipped from side to side. Once outside his office, O’Steen directed some frightened students out of the building and assembled with other faculty and students on the athletic field.
“Several very large aftershocks continued to hit and the ground felt like jelly,” he says. “We immediately began hearing reports of death and destruction in the city. I got one phone call out to my wife who was at our home, nine miles away. She had collected our daughters from school and they were heading to an emergency evacuation zone near our house because the cliff sides that surround the area we live in had many rock falls.” They ultimately headed to a tourist area north of the city with lots of motels, then later found temporary quarters in an acquaintance’s holiday home in Arrowtown.
Only the day before, his family had moved out of their house, putting everything in storage so damage from the September earthquake could be repaired. They were not able to return home until July.
The Canterbury campus was closed for a month following the February temblor, and O’Steen is still unable to use his office. “An entire temporary village of portable units was built over several months, and now my colleagues and I have desk space and classroom space in them,” he says. Two buildings on campus were recently demolished due to quake damage.
The idea for the new course came two days after the quake when O’Steen and his wife Susan were watching a news broadcast from Christchurch. “The reporter was showing the Student Volunteer Army out shoveling silt and clearing rubble and said, ‘Isn’t it great that these students have put aside their studies to help out the community?’”
Susan gave him the idea for tying this service to academic studies. He had taught with service-learning in prior teaching positions, but this course would be different because the course would occur after the service. “An email to the Pro Vice Chancellor of Student Services and a Skype call to the Vice Chancellor later, the course was on its way,” O’Steen says. Over 200 students have completed the course over the past two semesters, even though it does not count toward any degree requirements and must be taken as an overload or elective.
After Hurricane Irene hit last summer, O’Steen sent the course information to several universities in the hurricane’s path. Vermont University quickly adapted the course for its own students. Carrie Williams-Howe, the community-university partnerships and service-learning director at Vermont University, told a reporter they liked this course because it would help ensure that their response to the surrounding devastation would last beyond the initial cleanup, committing the university to the long-term recovery effort.
In addition to reflecting on community service in Christchurch, where he has lived since 2005, O’Steen has also reflected on the continuing influence of the Curry School in his professional life.
“Throughout my master’s and doctoral studies at Curry, my intellectual development was guided and supported by all of the faculty members I interacted with,” he says. “However, it was my moral and communal development occurring outside of the building that has become the most important in my subsequent positions in higher education and, especially so, in facing up to the challenges of finding ways to connect university students with the rebuilding efforts in an earthquake ravaged city. For that I have Margo Figgins and Joe Strzepek [now retired] to thank.”
He says these two professors provided models for using their academic positions to improve the communities around them, and they supported him in doing the same through both his dissertation topic on experiential education and his work with the Young Writers Workshop.
“Both experiences have proven to be significant and deep reservoirs of lessons learned from which I continue to draw,” he added. “So amidst the rubble, liquefied land, and eventual rebuild that is Christchurch after the quakes, there is a strong connection to the Curry School.”