(Photo by Jennifer Britton)
What do students who pay around $50,000 per year for school have in common with Philadelphians who live in an area with a 50 percent poverty rate? More than they think.
When the Philadelphia branch of LIFT closed operations in August, a void was left in the local social services field. The nonprofit had partnered with local universities and trained students to help community members with a variety of needs find resources, including public benefits, access to education and tax help, said Gina Gendusa, LIFT Philadelphia’s former program director. When LIFT closed, the university placement sites closed, too.
Drexel University noticed that gap and quickly committed to replacing it with UConnect, an “information referral and follow-up service” offered by the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement and the College of Arts and Sciences that is loosely modeled after LIFT, Gendusa said. Gendusa now oversees UConnect’s community programming as the program’s associate director.
In UConnect, Drexel students help local residents connect with social services that are otherwise difficult to navigate. The program is housed in the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships at 35th and Spring Garden streets — right in the thick of West Philly’s Promise Zone.
Student training involves several hours of lectures, PowerPoint presentations and role-playing. The students, called “navigators,” are encouraged to talk with those who visit the center in a “supportive, strength-based, collaborative manner,” Gendusa said.
“We’re working with and not for our community members,” she said.
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UConnect aims to bridge the communication divide between young college students and likely older community members. While some students may already be familiar with the social injustices faced by the underserved community surrounding Drexel, some may not. Their perceived personal differences may be more on theirs minds than similarities. Gendusa encourages the students to be aware of their own assumptions and stereotypes.
“When two people get together to just have an honest conversation,” she said, “they find that they have much more in common than they realized.”
UConnect also aligns with the strategic goals of Drexel’s Office of University and Community Partnerships, which oversees the Lindy and Dornsife centers, to make sure the office is “as helpful and connected and elevates community voices as much as possible,” Gendusa said. Students need that connection, too.
“Students are craving this interaction with their neighbors in a meaningful way,” Gendusa said.
Volunteering for UConnect is open to any student, though most come from specific community-based learning courses in which serving at the center is a core component of the classwork. One such course is “Justice in Our Community,” in which students learned about systemic societal problems. Through UConnect, they met face-to-face with people living through those injustices.
The program launched on Jan. 12. Since then, only about 30 community members have accessed the service, a number Gendusa thinks will increase as more people hear about it. Outreach is also being done with community partner organizations and civic associations.-30-
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