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Students Help People Access Existing Resources

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September 7, 2005

Northwestern Junior Jackie Stewart said she sees her work with the National Student Partnerships as a way to make a difference in the community -- one person at a time.

Since the fall of her freshman year, she and other student volunteers have been helping low-income community members find housing, employment and other social services.

Stewart said she was attracted to the National Student Partnerships, an organization that seeks to be a bridge between community members and the different resources that already exist in the community, because she remembers what it feels like to need help.

“My parents divorced when I was 10 years old, and my mom was left to raise three children on her own,” Stewart explained. “We struggled for many years. I saw this as a way to work with people who might be going through some of same things I had.”

Stewart is just one of more than 50 Northwestern students who have been trained to work with National Student Partnerships (NSP), a year-round, student-run organization founded five years ago by Yale University students. Among other things, the volunteers help their clients write resumes, conduct job searches, use the computers, polish their interview skills, apply for food stamps, obtain affordable housing, find child care and access legal services.  For the last three months, the students have also offered free tax help to people whose incomes fall below $35,000.

When the volunteers can’t help their clients directly, they refer them to other organizations that can, said Stewart, a journalism and cultural anthropology major and one of two local directors for the group.

“We provide a lot of referrals about other opportunities or other agencies that exist,” echoed Emily Rhodes, site coordinator for NSP’s Evanston office.  “Much of what we do is call other organizations and help people navigate the existing system more easily.”

Last year, NSP helped about 600 clients, Rhodes said, many of whom were referred to them by people working at the Illinois Employment and Training Center where NSP shares office space.  NSP also reaches out to the community, passing out flyers in shelters and soup kitchens, Rhodes said.  Recently, Rhodes wrote to all the local churches to let people know that NSP was available to help low-income workers in Evanston prepare their tax returns.

“I would say, on average, we help about 85 to 100 clients a month,” Rhodes said. Located at 1615 Oak Ave. in Evanston, NSP’s offices are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. According to Rhodes, the Evanston office is one of the most active NSP offices.

Skokie Resident Verline Nelson has used NSP’s services for the last two years and has even recommended the program to both her son and her brother.  The students have helped her write her resume, work on the computer, find a job, practice her interviewing skills and study for her classes at Oakton Community College, she said.

“Sometimes, I just come in to talk when I’m not happy about how things are going,” she said.  “The students are always encouraging and helpful.”

Jermaine Wideman from Evanston said he also finds the students helpful. They have helped him look for a job, update his resume and post it online, prepare his tax return and prepare for tests.

“I would definitely recommend it to others,” he said.

Even if the students haven’t worked with a particular issue before, they are willing to see if they can help, Rhodes said.

Linda Jun, a Northwestern junior majoring in history and sociology, currently helps clients in both the Evanston and Chicago offices of NSP.  Recently, she said, she had a client who was interested in obtaining Ethiopian citizenship.

Jun ended up contacting the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, D.C. She also allowed him to use the NSP address to get information.

“Giving him the opportunity and ability to pursue this goal was important to me because it was clearly very important to him,” Jun explained.

Being a student and working with older clients has not been an issue, said Stewart, who admitted she was nervous about it until she had her first client. 

“The key to our name is partnerships,” Stewart said.  “When I sit down with a client, I definitely don’t have all the answers.  It’s a process where we talk about the situation and the resources available. Sometimes a client might know a little more about the resources because he or she has checked into it already.  We work it out together.”

“Our client surveys tell us that people are enthusiastic about what we do,” Rhodes said. “All of our services are free, and the students are willing to put in the time and effort to make sure we have quality results in the end.”

It’s the results that make Stewart feel as if she is making a difference.  “Last year, I had three longer-term clients, and at the end of the school year, all of them had jobs,” she said.

Topics: Campus Life