CORVALLIS - Two dozen Oregon State University students will spend most of their spring off of the campus but still in school, taking a special course that looks at a variety of perspectives tied to the migrant labor experience.

The students are part of an OSU ethnic studies course called "Cross Cultural Perspectives in Agricultural Labor: Learning Through Listening." They will spend March 21-26 in Independence, Ore., speaking to migrant workers, farm owners and managers, local school and church leaders, community health and social workers, and other stakeholders.

A primary purpose of the course is to engage the students in "action research," where they address issues about which they know little, and learn to listen to all sides, said Dwaine Plaza, an assistant professor of sociology and one of the course leaders.

"The process of learning is almost as important as what the students will hear about the migrant experience," Plaza said. "The ability to listen to different perspectives without letting your own biases interfere is a key to initiating real change."

Course facilitator Geoffrey Habron, a doctoral candidate in fisheries and wildlife, said one goal for the students is to be able to identify the perspectives offered by various groups and individuals and accurately reflect those perspectives verbally or in writing by the end of the course.

During the final day of the course, all of the stakeholders will gather to listen to the students speak about what they have heard, and to see if they "got it," Habron said.

"This is a great chance for students to get out into the real world and get involved in some real issues," Habron said. "You don't have to wait until someone comes out with a book to examine different sides of the same issue. We could have just talked to migrant workers and had an interesting class. But that wouldn't get at the complexity of some of the issues."

Among the issues the class will explore are efforts to unionize migrant workers, the integration of their families into schools, churches and the local community, and employer-employee relations.

This will be the second year OSU has offered the course, which is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Interaction Program, the OSU Department of Ethnic Studies, and the university's L.L. Stewart Faculty Development Award.

Last year, the students went into the course - also in Independence - with a fair degree of apprehension, which was matched by some of the stakeholders, Habron said.

"Some of the students came to the table with their opinions already set and others had no idea what was going to happen," Habron said. "Likewise, some of the stakeholders were very defensive, even though we made it clear we didn't have an agenda, other than to listen.

"By the end of the course, though, I think both the students and the stakeholders recognized what it was all about," he added. "And we were all a little better because of it."

For more information on the course, contact Erlinda Gonzales-Berry, who chairs the Department of Ethnic Studies, at 541-737-0709.

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Dwaine Plaza, 541-737-5369