Community Fellow program tries to break the bubble

Illustration: Julie Peterson

The Student Engagement Center (SEC) will kick off its new Community Fellow program this month, pairing eight upper-level Whitman students with local organizations to engage in community development and related projects for the full academic year.

According to Assistant Dean for Student Engagement Noah Leavitt, the initiative was designed as part of the SEC’s ongoing campaign to better involve students in the community and provide more in-depth internship opportunities.

“The college is really aggressively trying to give students, while they’re on campus, the opportunity to get to know and make meaningful contributions to Walla Walla. [We’re] working very hard to give students the chance to have professional experiences, both during the school year and during the summer,” he said.

Junior and senior students can choose to apply to one of six Walla Walla organizations, ranging from nonprofits like Helpline to civic institutions like the Department of Court Services. Those selected as fellows will be compensated for their work by the Student Engagement Center. The initiative is funded through a grant from the Sherwood Trust, a local fund dedicated to improving community resources.

“It’s at a level we haven’t been able to get [to] before,” said Leavitt, noting that the program was developed partly to address the limitations of the semester-long internships the SEC offers. “We’ve gotten feedback that if there’s a way to have a student participate in an organization over a longer term, it’s more valuable … and a deeper learning experience.”

Leavitt and the SEC solicited feedback from participating organizations while developing the program. Several of the organizations’ directors have hired Whitman interns in the past or are former Whitman students themselves.

Alumna Jennifer Northam ’91, director of the participating Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, looks forward to the collaboration between Whitman and her organization.

“We’ve had a Whitman intern for two consecutive summers and our satisfaction with that program is through the roof. So when the opportunity came for us to have a full year of a Whitman student working with us and for us, we jumped at the chance,” she said.

Dan Willms of Helpline, a nonprofit social service agency that operates the STEP women’s shelter in Walla Walla, echoed that sentiment.

“We are very enthusiastic about having Whitman students volunteer and be interns at Helpline,” he said.

Helpline will be hiring two fellows, who will work on establishing a new volunteer program at the STEP shelter and a case management program at Helpline. Willms hopes to have the students make permanent contributions to the organization.

“I would hope that we will not only work on developing [these programs], but that they will become a lasting reality.”

In addition to working on specialized projects with their organizations, participating students will be required to present their work to the other participants in the program. Leavitt pointed to this sharing of ideas between groups as another unique aspect of the project.

“It’s not a group of organizations that has ever done anything together, and that’s part of what’s so energizing about this … We’ve taken some of the most creative and innovative [people in Walla Walla] and put them in a room together,” he said.

An information session for prospective applicants will be held in the Memorial Building on Sept. 6, where organization directors will be available to answer questions about the positions being offered through the program. The official kickoff ceremony for the program, attended by Mayor Jim Barrow and President George Bridges, will take place on Sept. 18.

Leavitt hopes the project will help in breaching the distance between campus and the larger community, encouraging students to make lasting differences in Walla Walla.

“I think this will be one of the most meaningful ways to get beyond the bubble that this college has been able to figure out,” he said.




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