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Students Bridge Class, Service

New Center for Civic Engagement boosts community volunteer opportunities

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June 10, 2010
Alternative Spring Break participants do hurricane relief work in a New Orleans neighborhood.

Senior Aaron Beswick has always wanted to help other people. Northwestern's new Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) connected him with service groups that fulfilled his desire to be useful, and here's the tricky part - also integrated Aaron's service into his academic curriculum.

"I come from a low-income family, so a lot of my work now is about things I've personally experienced, having a single mom, being uninsured, seeing an education gap," Beswick said. "I want to work to make changes in these areas. It's personal."

"CCE is the bridge to helping students figure out how to fit these activities and courses into their majors, minors and lives," says Dan Lewis, director of the Center for Civic Engagement and a professor of human development and social policy. "It's also about being better partners in the Evanston and Chicago communities."

The Jumpstart program that Beswick and 25 other Northwestern students have been participating in clearly illustrates that partnership. The program connects interested Northwestern students with preschoolers in low-income areas for a year of mentoring and tutoring, based on a nationally developed early childhood education curriculum.

"Their presence here has been quite wonderful," says Becky Rube, education coordinator for the Howard Area Community Center's Family Center. "The more positive interaction these children have with adults in their community, the higher their self-esteem, the better they do in school."

Beyond personal satisfaction, many of the Northwestern students who participate in Jumpstart use the program as part of their work-study requirement. All of them have chosen to join Americorps, so they'll also be granted some tuition credit for each year of service they complete.

CCE students also are working with Evanston's Haitian Congress to assist in relief efforts for Haiti after the January earthquake. Students have helped in the gathering and loading of relief items that have been shipped to Haiti. And again helping students connect experience and academics, CCE collaborated with the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies to create a spring quarter course on disaster relief that offered 36 students the opportunity to better understand global disasters in the wake of the incident in Haiti.

Through a new partnership with the Evanston City Council, Northwestern students also are now working as interns for city council members, while taking a Chicago Field Study course on civic action and local government. Requests for student assistance in the Haiti relief efforts and for the city council internships came from Evanston leaders, Lewis said. That, he says, is an excellent indication of how well the CCE has been received in the larger community.

For members of the Northwestern community interested in enhancing their learning or scholarship through engagement, the center has developed the NU Engagement Inventory, which lists volunteer opportunities as well as for-credit classes and programs in service learning.

In the fall, the center welcomed its first class of six student fellows. Enrolled in a variety of undergraduate schools and departments, these Civic Engagement Fellows lead engagement initiatives on campus and facilitate service-learning activities that their peers are interested in pursuing. With their help, the CCE has "tapped into the nerve system" of the student body, Lewis said.

"We have all this flexibility to respond to student interest, along with the faculty, to improve the strength of public service learning," he said. "This really shows the University's commitment to beyond-the-classroom learning."

Service opportunities for course credit used to be quite limited, Beswick said. "The CCE now gives all students opportunities to connect with civic engagement whether they're majoring in theater, art, music, education or what have you."

The Center for Civic Engagement shares its office space at 1813 Hinman Ave. with Chicago Field Studies and the Center for Leadership. These units work together and across schools to make sure engagement opportunities for students are as diverse and fulfilling as possible.

"Engage Chicago," a program that will debut this summer, will focus on powerful experiential learning for undergraduate students interested in public service. Lewis has great hope for this new collaborative effort of Chicago Field Studies, the summer school and the CCE.

Students will spend the summer living with a group of peers in downtown Chicago while balancing coursework taught by Northwestern faculty and internships with top Chicago civic organizations and nonprofits. The program integrates these components with field experiences, service projects and visits with community experts to teach students about history, politics and social change in Chicago.

Finally, for graduating seniors and young alumni, the center also houses the NU Public Interest Program, a year-long, public service fellowship program that places more than 20 recent graduates in competitive, yearlong paid fellowships at nonprofits and public service organizations each year.  

Lewis said that his involvement in the center makes him feel "extremely positive about undergraduate education at Northwestern. It couldn't be a better time to be a professor at a major university in the United States," he said. "The students are eager, highly motivated, naturally engaged-it's an honor to be involved in their learning."

Following his CCE work with the preschoolers, Beswick, the Northwestern senior, will be heading to graduate school to continue his studies in social work and public health. Students everywhere could benefit from experiences such as those provided by the Center for Civic Engagement, he said. "It's definitely something universities should be investing in."

For more information on the Center for Civic Engagement, call 847-467-1367 or e-mail engage@northwestern.edu.

- Article by freelance writer Heidi Umbhau

Topics: University