Giving Learning the value of charity
By Joan Caplin

(MONEY Magazine) – Marcus Contreras, El Paso

When Marcus Contreras was a sophomore at the University of Texas at El Paso, one of his professors gave the students a choice for passing his course: Do a class presentation or perform volunteer work. Contreras chose the latter.

The course was an introduction to American politics, and the volunteer work was with Project SHINE (Students Helping in the Naturalization of Elders), a tutoring program offered in nine U.S. cities. The professor's teaching method--linking volunteer work in the community to curriculum in the classroom--is called service learning.

Through Project SHINE, Contreras, 29, coaches classes of 20 or so Mexican immigrants on how to pass their citizenship tests. Many in El Paso's large Latino community have been legal aliens for 30 years or more. "They had families to support and a lot of them bring up their grandkids," Contreras explains. "They just never had the time to learn English or to become citizens."

When Contreras began at Project SHINE, he was in the midst of pulling his own life together after years of moving frequently and dropping out of school more than once. Along with resolving to complete his education, Contreras was looking for ways to give back, inspired by his late father and his own brush with death. When his father died in 1994, Contreras saw firsthand how many people he had touched. A year later, a carjacking left him with a bullet lodged in his chest. "All put together, it makes me feel like I'm on borrowed time," he says.

Now a full-time college junior, Contreras is also a husband, the father of a four-year-old daughter, a paid intern for a state district judge and a return volunteer at Project SHINE. This time, however, he won't get course credit. That's fine with him. --J.C.