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Brian Peterson of Students Today Leaders Tomorrow.

Brian Peterson, one of the founding members of Students Today Leaders Forever and a four-year participant on the Pay It Forward Tour, helps clean up along the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.

Making a difference

U students are helping to change the world...while they're still in school

By Rick Moore

From M, summer 2007

Brian Lucero sits at a campus bagel joint in mid-May with a grin the length of the nearby Scholars Walk. He may always be this cheerful, but the end of finals a day earlier is likely a contributing factor. Lucero graduated in December with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a minor in mathematics, and this spring he tacked on minors in Spanish studies and Asian languages and literatures. He received the Paul A. Cartwright/Institute of Technology (IT) Alumni Society award in recognition of his service to IT and the University. Over the past two years, Lucero has done construction and engineering relief work in Costa Rica and Pakistan (part of his involvement with the organization Engineers Without Borders) and participated in a senior civil engineering project aimed at bringing clean water to a village in Ghana. Closer to home, he has provided translation services for low-income Spanish speakers for their tax returns and helped tutor Spanish-speaking inner city schoolchildren.

In a time of heightened emphasis on the University's vast research endeavors, it's vital to remember how seriously the U takes its public and community engagement mission.

Despite the breadth of his travels, Lucero is not an anomaly. Across the University's campuses, students are engaged in community service projects great and small---from one-time cleanups and weeklong spring-break service trips to regular tutoring sessions and volunteer efforts in far-off countries. Tallying students' community service can be a bit like counting the waves on a windy day at Lake Mille Lacs. Not only is it a monumental task, the waves keep moving. But students like Lucero are a good place to start. A self-proclaimed average student through his first two years of college, Lucero says his work overseas gave him motivation to finish school and helped him to see how engineering can better the world. "It's cool to see how you can apply that knowledge to improve the lives of other people," he says.

Beyond research

In a time of heightened emphasis on the University's vast research endeavors, it's vital to remember how seriously the U takes its public and community engagement mission. Public engagement is a twist on what has traditionally been called "outreach." Outreach was more of a one-way street, with U experts going out into the community to impart their knowledge. Public engagement is a two-way street where U students, staff, and faculty give of their time and talents--as per the community's needs--and often receive as much as they give. It's an exchange of information and inspiration. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has included the University of Minnesota as one of 76 colleges and universities nationwide in its new "Community Engagement" classification. And earlier this spring, the U staged its first-ever Public Engagement Day to showcase the many ways the University connects with communities. For some students juggling busy class and work schedules, making a difference means giving up their free time. Four years ago, a group of Twin Cities campus freshmen founded the group Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF) and planned a spring break trip called the Pay It Forward Tour, where students travel across the country, stop in a different city each night, and perform a community service project each day. In 2004 one bus with 43 students traveled to Washington, D.C. STLF now has 11 chapters throughout the Midwest; this year, 15 buses carrying some 600 students made spring break journeys. For other students, public engagement has become part of their studies and is integrated into the curriculum on all the U's campuses. In this case, it is known as "service-learning"--a teaching methodology that incorporates community service projects into traditional classes as a way for students to gain a deeper understanding of the course objectives. A composition class, for example, may ask its students to volunteer regularly at a homeless shelter and to then use that experience as inspiration for their writing. According to Laurel Hirt, service-learning and community involvement director at the U's Career and Community Learning Center (CCLC), in 2006 there were 1,988 students participating in 63 courses that offered service-learning on the Twin Cities campus, up from 1,357 students and 55 courses in 2005. The Morris campus is experiencing similar growth. "We do somewhere between 20 and 30 classes a year, depending on the year," says Argie Manolis, UMM's director of service-learning since 2003. "It really has grown a lot in the last three years, and we plan to continue growing the program." Two Morris students who graduated this spring, Joe Coyle and Corina Bernstein, created a unique directed study experience with the help of their French adviser and service-learning funding. Through a series of workshops, they gave residents of Divine House (which teaches independent living skills to people with cognitive or developmental disabilities) photography instruction and cameras, so that they could create artistic photo collages. "We just felt like it would be great to have something like that in place--an outlet for creative expression," says Coyle, who is heading to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this summer to work in the Teach For America program. Public engagement is becoming a part of graduate education, as well. Katie Peacock graduated from the University of Minnesota, Duluth in 2001 and now works with the CCLC. Two years ago, she enrolled part-time in the master's degree program in public policy at the Humphrey Institute, only to find there wasn't enough "public" in public policy. "I entered public policy with a complete desire to use it to make our communities better," Peacock says. But after finding the core curriculum too statistical and analytical, she and a group of students got together to address the question, "How can we hold on to the things that made us want to come here in the first place?" she says. The result is CHANCE, a yearlong curriculum that will expand civic engagement among Humphrey Institute students, staff, and faculty and build sustainable relationships with the neighboring Cedar-Riverside community.

A lasting impact

Occasionally, community involvement by University of Minnesota students creates an unexpected legacy. Witness the Pay it Forward spring break tours, which have grown in size every year and someday may be limited only by the availability of buses. Or the annual Fill the Bus event. This clothing drive, launched four years ago by U graduate Surbhi Madia and John Barber, has chugged along without losing momentum, filling multiple buses with winter clothing for the neediest of Minnesotans. And there's the work of Rebecca Mitchell (profiled in the winter 2007 M), who graduated this spring after completing a semester-long internship in Egypt through an A.I. Johnson Scholarship. Her work there involved research on the Life Wrap, a device designed to reduce the loss of blood--and ultimately women's lives--from obstetric hemorrhage. Mitchell was one of the U's 20 Community Engagement Scholars, who integrate extensive community involvement throughout their undergraduate careers, logging 400 hours of community engagement, 8 credits of service-learning coursework, a half dozen reflections, and an Integrative Community Engagement Project. As part of the program, she continued her work for Student Project Africa Network (SPAN), the nonprofit organization she created to connect students to service organizations in Africa. She now plans to take a year off--before attending medical school--to raise more funds for SPAN and ensure its viability and growth into the future. Aside from any legacy Brian Lucero might be leaving, he can't imagine a future without volunteering. He hopes to stay involved with Engineering Without Borders in developing countries and "continue using my engineering background to brainstorm ideas, even if I'm not physically there." He says his previous work has shown him how advantaged he is, and he figures his blessings come with an inherent opportunity to give back. "It's a two-part thing--it's a blessing-slash-responsibility to go out and do things for other people," he says.