‘Carondelet Conversations’ project connects students and seniors in a time of social distance

'Carondelet Conversations' Project Zoom Screenshot

Carondelet Village resident, Dolores Voorhees '98, and communications student partner, Elisabeth Wulf '21, meet over Zoom as part of the community-engaged learning project.

In all the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has reframed everyday life, perhaps one of the most universally devastating effects is the social isolation experienced across generations. How we interact and build relationships with one another, a key concept in communication studies, became a powerful teaching tool for the students in the Interpersonal Communication class at St. Catherine University. A course project helped residents at Carondelet Village, a senior living campus adjacent to the University, as well as seniors associated with the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph (CSJ) forge connections with students to minimize that sense of isolation.

Like many professors, the switch from in-person to remote learning in spring 2020 led Elizabeth Otto, assistant professor of communication studies at St. Kate’s, to reimagine the structure of her courses. That included a staple service-learning project embedded in her Interpersonal Communication class, “Carondelet Conversations.” For the project, Otto pairs her students with Carondelet Village senior citizens, encouraging them to talk about whatever they find interesting. After three meetings with their partners, students reflect on their conversations and tie their experience to what they have learned about interpersonal communication during the semester.

D’Ann Urbaniak Lesch, director of the Center for Community Work and Learning, says that the center’s work with Carondelet Village has been a long-term collaborative effort, and this class connection an important part of the partnership. “The continued interest that Carondelet Village has shown in this service-learning experience that also aligns with the goals of the Interpersonal Communication course speaks to the focus Carondelet Village places on connection and the benefit they saw from the experiences for both seniors and St. Kate’s students.”

The goal of the assignment has remained consistent to when Otto first introduced it in her class in 2016: for students to encounter people of different backgrounds and ages, learning that through initiating a conversation, asking thoughtful questions, actively listening, and responsive self-disclosing, establishing meaningful connections is very possible. This assignment objective works to combat assumptions and stereotypes commonly held about older-aged people. 

“Carondelet residents can teach wisdom to students that I can’t,” says Professor Otto. “There are misconceptions that people of different age groups don’t have anything to talk about or that they can’t make authentic connections as equal peers across the barrier of age. This project proves there’s something to learn from everyone, regardless of age.”

In the reimagined online environment, Zoom became the meeting room for the student-senior pairs. Talking through a computer screen comes with occasional technical difficulties, and there are sometimes obstacles to reading important nonverbal communication cues, but there has also been a surprising advantage. In Fall 2020 when the project went virtual, the number of senior citizen volunteers who signed up exceeded the number of students in her class. “Freeing the project from the physical constraint of large-group meetings at Carondelet Village has allowed many more people to participate,” Otto said. This year, this virtual engagement was broadened to include consociates of the CSJ in addition to on-campus residents and Sisters.

These virtual Carondelet Conversations have also helped seniors manage the sense of social isolation brought by the pandemic. “Carondelet Village has a one-of-a-kind spirit of hospitality and welcome that has been difficult to support in the ways that we’re used to,” says Sister Carolyn Puccio, CSJ. “I’ve been enjoying learning about our Katies’ lives as young women — it enriches both of us.”

Some students connected with their partners at a deeper level as a result of the virtual format and the events of the pandemic. “I’ve gained a new friend through this assignment,” said Lexi Townsend ’24. “I never would have thought that talking to a complete stranger would change me as much as it did. I value the vulnerability we grew to have with each other.” By their third meeting, they were baking cookies together on camera.

“This service-learning project is special because it’s not about an activity, event, or doing something. Rather it is all about relationship building and just being together,” says Marty Roers, Justice Director of the CSJ Justice Office. “This is very unique to Professor Otto’s vision and approach to intergenerational conversations.”