Service Beyond Volunteering
Jefferson public citizens bring academics to field
It is not uncommon for students to contemplate the impact they will have on the world, but for some these thoughts are more than just a hazy idea of post-graduate plans. Members of the Jefferson Public Citizens program are devising ways to improve life in Charlottesville as well as many other communities abroad.
Launched in the spring of 2009, the JPC program is an academic honor that gives students the opportunity to research and implement service projects of their own creation. Students work in groups to submit idea proposals and must partner with a faculty advisor and a community partner to apply.
If admitted, applicants receive funding to begin their year-long service project, which should "engage local partners in a useful and constructive way," said Richard Handler, faculty advisor and director of the Global Development Studies program.
Handler, who reviews students' proposals, said the criteria for admittance include practicality and feasibility of the project, inclusion of education and service components, and benefits to the community.
"The application process is extensive, but if you're willing to put in the time, you'll be given the money and you can start your project," said first-year College student Erica Stratton, who estimated that she currently spends about five hours per week working on her project.
Currently, the JPC program funds about 20 projects per year.
"You set out a work plan, but things change so much as you progress with the project ... we thought we had an idea in mind and once we did more research, we found many different paths that this [project] could possibly go down," second-year College student Arianna Parsons said.
Parsons has been working with Handler on a project benefiting Tanzanian women who make jewelry to expand their localized market to the U.S. economy. Parsons got involved in the project through a mutual friend who visited Tanzania and personally met the jewelers.
Parsons is double-majoring in Global Development Studies and economics, and is especially interested in the economic development of sub-Saharan Africa. She said she had hoped to travel to Tanzania to meet the women, but the group did not get the full funding for a trip. Parsons said the money instead went toward the project's research.
The JPC program reviews proposals and allots a certain amount of money necessary for the project, with the implication that students independently will supplement the funding with grants. Funding through the JPC program comes exclusively from private financial donors.
Graduate student Carla Jones said most of the funding for her current project is going to educational materials for focus groups and community distribution, but participants receive aid for personal expenses as well. "Essentially, students get stipends, so instead of getting jobs, they are financially able to focus on their projects."
Jones is currently working on a project as a graduate student advisor to a developing plan that will increase traffic to the Charlottesville City Market and provide low-income individuals with access to healthy foods.
After taking a global sustainability class, Stratton also became interested in this proposal. She participated in service clubs in high school, and said she is particularly interested in agricultural sustainability.
"It's exciting to have all different backgrounds and to have a relationship between graduate and undergraduate students," Jones said.
Jones also worked on a project as an undergraduate student when the JPC program first began. Her group helped to develop a curriculum about sustainability at the Learning Barge - the world's first seafaring classroom - located in Portsmouth, Va. Jones and her partners worked with teachers to instruct elementary and middle school students about wetlands and water pollution along the Elizabeth River.
Although these projects span only the academic year, most have a lasting impact on the community.
"Ideally we can make this [jewelry company] into a sustainable business," Parsons said. "We want to work within [the women's] production capabilities so that after we graduate, they can continue their business."
Handler has been working with Parsons and her partners as the advisor for the Tanzanian project since the fall. They meet about once a month to discuss the progress of the project and then conduct research and interviews independently.
"The students will learn about the practicality of the project - whether they are able to make it work - and will learn how difficult it is to talk with business people, along with general communication skills," Handler said.
Other JPC projects include improving the lives of the disabled in rural South Africa, increasing water quality and sanitation in Nicaragua, and working with at-risk middle school girls at the Charlottesville City schools.
Considering most projects have either a local or international focus, one goal for the future of the program is to increase the number of projects at the national level, said Megan Raymond, director of JPC and Academic Community Engagement.
When asked about the level of dedication University students have to community service, Raymond said, "It is probably the top in the country; that I know for certain. Our students are so committed to community service - it's incredible."
The committed students of the JPC program will present the research they have been gathering to the University community April 12 in the hopes of securing a donation to continue their service projects.