U open house pushes outreach efforts

by Molly Moker

Before this year, the Brian Coyle Community Center could enroll a maximum of 20 students in its after-school reading program.

But after partnering with the University last fall, the center, on the West Bank, is now able to help as many as 60 elementary school students learn to read.

“This shows when you’re in college you can make a difference in a kid’s life,” interim center director Rhonda Eastlund said.

The center is one of thousands of organizations with which the University has partnered, University officials said. The partnerships were honored Wednesday at Coffman Union.

Eastlund said this is the first year the center partnered with the University.

The partnership is through a University class, People and Problems, that requires students to come to the center once per week to volunteer with students whose second language is English.

Eastlund said she has had approximately 35 volunteers help during each of the last two semesters. Students come in one day per week for three hours and work one-on-one with elementary school students.

“Because it isn’t done on campus, it doesn’t get seen,” said Laurel Hirt, coordinator of community involvement and service learning in the Career and Community Learning Center. “But this is something that is so beneficial for the city.”

This year, Hirt said approximately 3,000 students participated in community service University-wide and interest is growing.

The Career and Community Learning Center works with 150 partnerships with opportunities such as teaching non-English-speaking adults to read and helping elementary students create public service announcements.

Political science senior Gina Nelson works 15 hours per week for the Urban 4-H Program, an opportunity she found on the University’s employment Web site.

Although she said she spends a lot of time working with 4-H, for which she receives no college credits, she said the time is well spent.

“A lot of people don’t realize what an asset the University is to the state, to families and to the community,” Nelson said. “It’s important to take the assets we have and bring them out to the community.”

Many University students get involved with community partnerships through classes that have a service-learning requirement or option, Hirt said.

“If you’re teaching a class on literacy and diversity, there’s no better way to get involved than to go out and actually do it,” Hirt said.

The community work is then tied back to classroom work, she said. Hirt said the Career and Community Learning Center works with approximately 50 different classes that have a service-learning requirement.

Phillips Community Television, a Minneapolis nonprofit organization that teaches youth about media, has five University volunteers that come in to fulfill class-service learning requirements.

Michael Hay, youth program manager for the organization, said University students help the program flourish.

“They make a difference to everyone involved,” Hay said. “(The youth) are always interested in hearing stories about college and high school.”

Reaping benefits

The Career and Community Learning Center is also working to implement a new program that would give students who do extensive community service work more recognition.

The Community Engagement Scholars Program would award students who have high levels of community service with a community-engagement-scholar notation on their official transcript.

To receive the notation, students would need to complete 400 hours of community service, nine credits of service-learning courses, write six reflections on community engagement and complete an integrative community-engagement project, among other requirements, Hirt said.

“For anything to go on an official transcript, the program has to be rigorous,” Hirt said. “But we hope it will motivate people to get involved.”

The program could be implemented in spring 2005, contingent on Board of Regents approval in June.

Community research

The Community Assistantship Program in the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs also offers students ways to get involved with community service projects.

The program offers students research assistant positions with organizations in the greater Minnesota area, program coordinator Monica Siems said.

Siems said student research assistants conduct surveys, develop case studies and gather information for community partnerships.

The program partners with 25 to 30 organizations a year, Siems said.

“The community is always overwhelmed with the amount of interest and the advance knowledge and skills of University students,” Siems said.

As a research assistant, students work approximately 190 hours per semester, she said. Undergraduates are paid $9.55 per hour and graduate students are paid $13.51 per hour with partial tuition and health insurance paid for, Siems said.

She said the program focuses on areas outside the Twin Cities to cover all territories between Duluth, Crookston, Morris and the Twin Cities.

Graduate student Sara Lassig worked as a research assistant in Fergus Falls, Minn., last summer and fall semesters.

She worked for Pioneer Senior Cottages, a home for elderly people suffering from memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.

She said it was rewarding to help part of a community that normally does not receive much University interest.

“Being here at the University, we kind of forget about the rest of the state,” she said.

The Career and Community Learning Center, the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, the Council on Public Engagement, the Literacy Initiative and student and community relations organized the open house to showcase their yearly community projects.