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The Just Cities Global Classroom

May 18, 2022

At 9 a.m. on a Tuesday last fall, Catharine Schneider had eaten breakfast, charged her phone, looked at her notes and joined her classmates for a 1.5-hour marathon breakout session on Zoom to discuss Philadelphia’s social structures. At 3 p.m. and nearly 4,000 miles away, Imme Dros, a public administration student at Hogeschool van Amsterdam, also dialogued on the same Zoom call with students about the various agents of justice the Netherlands capital employs to support a healthy community ecosystem.

 The two were enrolled in Just Cities, a classroom partnership between Drexel and the Hogeschool designed to incorporate a global dimension to a course on social justice policies in Philadelphia and Amsterdam.

 Conceived and co-taught by Cyndi Rickards, associate teaching professor of criminology & justice studies, and director of the justice studies program, the course found a home in the Honors Program in Fall 2021 with an added intensive course abroad (ICA) to spend winter break in the Netherlands. The ICA, unfortunately, never took off due to COVID. Catherine, English ’23, a transfer student who is law school-bound, was intrigued by this course as a way to delve into issues of social justice, but also for the chance to communicate with students abroad.

 “I had hoped to be able to travel abroad, but I’m homebound because my father was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer,” she says. “The ability to have somewhat of an experience with international learning and still feel that I was doing all that I could to protect my family was really appealing.”

 The 29 Honors students met in person once a week to discuss and define justice, examine the contemporary implications of it, and to use Philadelphia and Amsterdam as data points with the goal of creating a just city. The following day, the Drexel cohort would split up into policy pods with the affectionately-nicknamed “Dutchies,” with an end goal to create policy recommendations to lawmakers in the Amsterdam government and Harris Steinberg, the executive director of Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation.

 Teaching this class as Honors, Rickards admits, produced such positive results. “When you’re talking about justice or crime,” Rickards says, “the worst thing you can have is a homogenous point of view. In an Honors class, you have students who are deeply dedicated to their fields. You have students knowledgeable in healthcare, education, finance — and you’re sitting around the table talking about affordable housing. This is such a fine example of incorporating experiential learning to solve society’s problems. It almost begins to plug the dam.”

 Philadelphia and Amsterdam are quite different cities, Imme says. “The pods helped us see that things that work well in one city might not in the other. There is more involvement in the government in Amsterdam, but in the U.S., a lot of people don’t trust the government. We had to find ways to incorporate best practices that would work well in either city.”

 "Some people were nervous with the language barrier,” says Imme, who has never been to the U.S. “But it was exciting to read and hear what life is like in America, how students experience school and the culture.”

 Aside from applying course material to each of their cities’ state of justice, students engaged in intimate conversations about everything from insurance and prescription plans to homelessness and equal pay for women.

 “We were talking to the Dutchies about the high costs of medication here and it was interesting because they were asking, ‘Why?’ Catharine says. “I realized there’s a very individualistic mindset that is prevalent in America and it’s not the case there.”

 The learning objectives, Rickards imparts, go far beyond critically analyzing data.

 “Students had to do in-depth research of each other’s countries to draft policy, but they were also learning through uncertainty. It was high stakes. They had to stay connected throughout the week — using Google, Discord, WhatsApp — these are life skills I hope are transferable.”

 The unexpected consequences of this course were the friendships that developed, says Rickards.

 She herself grew very close with her co-instructors in Amsterdam, and one former student told Rickards she still texts back and forth with several Dutchies.

 “The relationships formed — particularly in a time where people were still feeling isolated — were really valuable.”

 Sometimes, though, operating in a global fashion has its unforeseen circumstances. “Daylight Savings Time,” recalls Rickards, laughing. “We forgot about the time change here. When you are doing an exchange there are hiccups, and you need to be flexible. The cross-cultural communication skills are happening on the student end and the faculty end.”

 After poring over research that reinforces education is the best way to deter crime, Catharine and her pod gave a final poster presentation recommending a policy change to reallocate resources from public safety measures in both Philadelphia and Amsterdam to education to reduce the crime rate.

 “This class was a confidence boost,” Catharine says. That thing  sounded impossible to do, but I’m proud of what my group members and I put out.”


Just Cities HNRS301 will be offered by the Honors College in the fall 2022 quarter and is open to Sophomore, Pre-Junior, Junior and Senior Students.