BETA Center Offers Anthropology Students Real-World Application

March 24, 2011

Photo by Laura J. Cole

In and out of the classroom, Jenifer Sherwood (Class of 2011), Liza Saffo (Class of 2011) and Associate Professor of Anthropology Rachel Newcomb take an applied approach to learning about single mothers through their work at the BETA Center.

Seated in the corner of the room, Associate Professor of Anthropology Rachel Newcomb observes the conversation taking place before her. To her right are the young women from the BETA Center, and to her left, a group of students from her Applied Anthropology course. Under the harsh fluorescent lights, the discussion comes to a pause. Together the young women have just read an article about double standards, and they take turns chiming in with stories from their own lives.

Newcomb’s students were leading a discussion on women’s empowerment, and the BETA Center’s residents were fully engaged in the conversation. Tucked away in the heart of Orlando, the BETA Center provided the perfect location for two worlds to collide. In their Rollins classroom, her students were learning about the challenges that single mothers face. Out in the real world, young women at the BETA Center were encountering the reality of these challenges. Here, in the seminar room at the BETA Center, these groups converged.

With the mission of providing “children and parents with the knowledge and support needed for strong and healthy families,” the BETA Center is a private, nonprofit organization with 32 years of experience helping families in the greater Orlando area. With the assistance of its full-time staff and over 600 volunteers, BETA Center reaches out to teenage mothers and young women, offering services to support children, increase healthy family functioning and prevent child abuse and neglect.

Newcomb’s service-learning project with BETA first began when a colleague mentioned the substantial work BETA does in the Central Florida community. At the time, Newcomb was preparing to assign a book about single mothers in her Applied Anthropology class.

“It made sense to combine this reading with a semester-length focus on single mothers, culminating in service-learning projects and a research paper,” said Newcomb. “We were focusing on the issues single mothers face in our society, and the BETA Center is unique in that it is a facility that helps support young women as they finish high school while providing childcare for their children.”

Working closely with the BETA Center, Newcomb’s students created several different community-based research projects that answered pressing needs at BETA. The groups conducted information sessions on women’s empowerment, nutrition for mothers and babies, and college preparation and the application process. One group of students even organized a coat drive during the winter months.

After volunteering at the BETA Center, the students tied their first-hand experience with the projects and their own independent research to the issues single mothers face in American society.

“As a discipline, cultural anthropology is interested in understanding the root causes of inequality in all societies, as well as the marginalization of certain populations,” said Newcomb. “I teach some classes with an applied focus, which I define broadly to mean that I want students both to think about how their major—anthropology—can be applied to real world problems and to understand and critically analyze pressing issues in American society.”

“Dr. Newcomb's course allows students to engage with many of the same social and anthropological challenges they learn about in the classroom,” said Director of Community Engagement Micki Meyer. “This ‘real-world’ learning allows students to better understand the material while getting intimately involved in the lives of women in our community in a positive way."

Newcomb’s relationship with the BETA Center has opened new doors for the partnership between the Center’s participants and the Rollins community. Promoting Rollins’ mission of global citizenship and responsible leadership, two students from Newcomb’s class, Liza Saffo (Class of 2011) and Jenifer Sherwood (Class of 2011), continue to work with the residents of BETA.

"Both are seniors and do not need this for credit, but they became so engaged with the young women at BETA that they wanted to keep working with them and getting to know them better,” said Newcomb. “At this point, they are really taking control of their learning, devising their own empowerment sessions—it’s no longer directed by me."

For Saffo and Sherwood, the words “single parenthood” and “teenage pregnancy” have become more than just terms from a text book. By leading small-group empowerment and discussion sessions about issues facing all women—violence-free relationships, beauty standards and self-esteem, the two seniors have discovered the real-life connotations of these words through the young mothers at the BETA Center.

Learn more about the Department of Anthropology and the Office of Community Engagement. For more information about volunteer opportunities at the BETA Center, contact

By Brittany Fornof (Class of 2011)

Office of Public Relations & Community Affairs
For more information, contact

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