When you think of a book lover, you might picture someone curling up with a good book. But for a class of students in the Honors College, being a book lover means taking action to make reading accessible for all. Associate professor Maria Jerinic created her spring special topics course to inspire students to make a meaningful difference in their community through the power of literature.
HON 496 - Honors Service Learning: Books for the Unhoused
In this service-learning course in the Honors College, students collect books and organize and build libraries for shelters that serve people facing housing insecurity. Through community service, readings, and guest lectures from qualified speakers, students learn about housing insecurity and social justice issues in the United States and in the communities of Southern Nevada.
Students also learn about the positive impact of a reading habit on people’s lives and why so many of these shelters request book donations. In addition to organizing book drive campaigns, students deliver books to designated locations. If you have spare closet space to store books on campus, these students will make good use of it!
Why is it being taught?
As the housing crisis continues to expand, so does the homelessness crisis. Jerinic created the course when she noticed that the books she donated herself were very popular with unhoused people. “I believe that we shouldn't have barriers between what we do in the classroom and what we do in our off-campus lives,” Jerinic says.
Who’s taking it?
This course is primarily taken by undergraduate students in the Service-Learning Honors Program, but is available to any student in good standing in the Honors College.
"Being in this class has allowed me to witness the power of community first hand. We began by collecting books around campus while spreading the word on our class’ goal to bring reading into more spaces. However, as we further connected with community partners and listened to amazing guest speakers on their understanding of the housing crisis, the class then worked toward a mission to make reading more accessible." — Gabriele Espiritu
Who’s teaching it?
Jerinic has a background in literature and has been teaching at the Honors College since 2005. In addition to this course, she also offers classes in writing, creative nonfiction, and 18th and 19th century literature. Her past special topics courses have included
- Jane Austen: Her Work and Our Worlds
- More Than Twitter: The Return of the Essay
- Gen X: Who They are and Why You Should Care
- Responding to "Extraordinary Circumstances": What We Can Learn from the Literature of the Blitz.
"Being a part of this semester’s Books for the Unhoused Service-Learning seminar with Dr. Jerinic has been such an enlightening and exciting experience. We have gotten to learn so much about our large unhoused population here in Southern Nevada, and about how much a work of literature can truly make a difference through some difficult times in one’s life. My favorite memory so far from this class has to be our first book delivery to The Shade Tree, which is the primary non-profit we are collaborating with for this project. It was just so much fun looking through all the different books we were able to collect, and physically putting them all up on the organization’s bookshelves." — Emmanuel Flores
How does it work?
The course is a mix of classroom learning and community work, with six weeks out of the semester being spent in the community. In April, the class is hosting a book fair at The Shade Tree shelter, which serves homeless and abused women and children in crisis.
Students read a variety of texts (including memoirs and scholarly articles) and participate in discussion sessions that feature guest lecturers who are experts on homelessness and social work. In addition to the traditional coursework, students collect books through book drives, deliver books to shelters, and find meaningful ways to raise awareness of issues related to housing insecurity.
"One of the most important lessons I have learned from this class is that there are various reasons, often uncontrollable, as to why housing instability occurs. In this case, the lack of support and trust often creates polarizing relationships amongst members of society. Safety nets are a privilege to have and, as a community, we should show more kindness toward those living through difficult circumstances. By the end of this course, I hope that the books we have collected and shared provide a sense of comfort and an opportunity for individuals to explore the world through beautiful literature." — Gabriele Espiritu
What students might be surprised to learn?
Many students reflect that the housing and homelessness issue is much more complex than the public and media discussions they observed. Beyond the facts and figures, Jerinic says, they’re also surprised to learn of the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that many people who are homeless or housing insecure experience.
What excites the instructor the most about this class?
Witnessing the creativity of her students while sharing her love of books. Jerinic says she marvels at “the many different ways students are thinking to serve. They have an allotted amount of hours of service that they're supposed to do outside of class, but it is inspiring to see how they've expanded their commitment to really do something beyond the requirements — to serve, to contribute, and to bring someone comfort with the right book at the right time.”
What even laypeople should know from this course?
Learning to see what the need is, rather than making assumptions and doing what you want to do. Everyone is capable of contributing to their community, Jerinic notes, and we’re all responsible for each other.
"If you’re eager to go out into the community and lend a helping hand, this class is a perfect place to start! In this course, I’ve learned that the housing crisis affects many people in Nevada, forcing them to live through traumatic experiences. Research shows that reading books has the ability to alleviate this trauma. This class has taught me that there is a great need in the community that we all have the ability to fulfill! I’ve also learned the power of a good book!" — Julia Chiaravanont
Where do students go next?
Some students in this class are also part of the Service-Learning Honors Program, so there will be other classes for them to take. “The Honors College hopes students remain involved in the Las Vegas community through service opportunities they pursue on their own,” Jerinic says.
The reading list
Want to educate yourself about the issues? Here's some books you can start with:
- 48 by Sheldon A. Jacobs
- Evicted by Mathew Desmond
- Essays by Barry Maxwell
- Welcome Homeless by Alan Graham (This one is currently on Jerinic’s table to be read.)
- Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins by Susan Fraiman (This one, too!)