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Berkeley College Online, School of Liberal Arts faculty

Berkeley College Online Sociology Course Transforms Students Through Oral History Projects

November 2011

Berkeley College student David Lugo with his father who had immigrated to the United States from Cuba during the Carter AdministrationDavid Lugo knew that his father had immigrated to the United States from Cuba during the Carter Administration. But it wasn’t until he enrolled in a Sociology course through Berkeley College Online that he actually sat down and spoke with his dad about life in Cuba under Fidel Castro.

"During the interview my dad told me about how my grandfather came from Spain with money to invest in Cuba before Fidel Castro’s government," said Mr. Lugo, who is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration – Management through a combination of online and on-site courses. "Eventually, when Fidel Castro took over, my grandfather was deprived of his properties in Cuba."

Within this online sociology course, students interviewed family members or friends about their life histories, placed individual life experiences in historical context, and shared their papers in a discussion forum.

"By doing these oral presentations, students learned an important concept in sociology: the impact of history on individual lives," said Marilyn Kulik, PhD, Chair, Online, School of Liberal Arts, who taught the online course. "Oral history research is an excellent teaching tool, and helps build a cohesive community in the online classroom."

Mr. Lugo learned just how difficult life was in Cuba during the Castro regime. He also gained a new respect for his father.

"This oral history project changed me as a person. I no longer pass judgment without considering why someone might have a particular viewpoint," said Mr. Lugo, who is on track to graduate in April 2012. "My dad and I have a better relationship now than we’ve ever had."

Every time she teaches the course, Dr. Kulik hears from students about how the oral history presentations have impacted their lives.

"Students become empathetic listeners, and for maybe the first time ever, they let a family member tell their story," Dr. Kulik said. "The impact of that story transforms not only the student who is doing the interview, but also the other students in the classroom who hear that story."

The diverse cultural backgrounds of Berkeley College students make this course an even more rewarding experience. During the recent online summer session, students heard about the experiences of one mother who lived through the 35-year civil war in Guatemala and another who lived in South Korea during the Korean War. Closer to home, one grandparent spoke about the Newark riots in the 1960s, while another shared stories about living in the South during racial segregation.

"The diversity in the Berkeley College classroom is like a microcosm of the diversity in the world," Dr. Kulik said. "By engaging with students from all of these different backgrounds in the classroom, our students are being prepared to engage with the world at large."