By Leighah Beausoleil
Framingham State University’s Civic Engagement and Service Learning Center opened this semester, offering internships for students and mini-grants for faculty and staff, according to Susan Dargan, dean of the College of Education and Social and Behavioral Sciences.
The center’s mission is to provide volunteer opportunities to students, connecting them with local communities that may be underrepresented and underserved, according to the Framingham State website.
The center partners with MetroWest Nonprofit Network, an organization that aims to provide support to and collaboration with local nonprofits.
Located in the Center for Inclusive Excellence, students, faculty, and staff can visit during office hours from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. These are held by its Faculty Coordinator David Smailes, a political science professor.
This semester, the center is sponsoring four paid internships focused on civic engagement. Interns are assigned a nonprofit to work with and meet regularly with the faculty coordinator to work for the center itself.
The interns worked with Anna Cross, director of MWNN, to find their nonprofit placements.
Dargan said around 2016, a group of FSU employees worked together to file an application for a Carnegie Classification in order to be recognized as an institution for “strong civic engagement.”
Though the group knew the chances of acquiring this classification were slim at that point, Dargan said the application process allowed them to begin taking the necessary steps to one day reach that goal.
Then, the vice president of diversity, inclusion, and community engagement who was leading the charge for this classification left the University. Subsequently, Dargan said the group did not have the “wherewithal” to complete the application.
She said institutions can apply every two years, and during that in-between time, she asked the University for an administrator position and funding.
Dargan said she was given approximately $18,000 a year, which allowed her to hire a faculty coordinator, offer mini-grants, and provide faculty training.
“Then last year, the Board of Trustees agreed to fund initiatives related to retention and improvement, and there's a lot of literature that shows that community-engaged learning helps us retain students, particularly in a demographic we're seeing a growth in in our student population,” she said.
“Our students who are BIPOC tend to really respond well to that kind of training,” she added.
The Board of Trustees granted the initiative a one-year sum of $100,000, she said.
However, she said the biggest challenge the center faces is not having a leader, adding other institutions typically have a full-time employee in that position.
“What I'm hoping is that we can show what can be done and how there has to be someone in charge of it,” Dargan said.
In the meantime, she said the acting director is the faculty coordinator who will oversee the interns and assist faculty and staff in applying for the mini-grants.
“He's on the work group and he's going to be working on the meet-and-greet breakfast and things like that,” she added. “Then we're working on another faculty development institute this summer, which is a lot of work.”
Dargan said, “The faculty coordinator gets $3,500 a semester. It's not a ton of money. It's not a course release. It's a recognition of the work they're doing.”
Smailes said as a political science professor, he has always had an interest in civic engagement.
He added, “It's such an important part of community building and democracy.”
After getting involved with a civic engagement group at Westfield State University, where he used to work, Smailes said he has been looking for more ways to get involved.
He said this led him to apply for one of the center’s mini-grants the first year they were offered and ultimately apply for the faculty coordinator position.
“I'm just really excited,” Smailes said. “I think one of the great things about this is that it really brings the community and the University together in a really important way. And I think every time I've been involved in civic engagement projects and service learning projects, everybody comes away with something really valuable from it.”
Cross said MWNN reached out to Framingham State regarding civic engagement around 2018 because the organization wanted to “develop a closer relationship” with the University.
“The legislature at that time was going to build in civic engagement as part of their funding, and then decided not to, so that kind of put the whole project on hold,” she said.
However, this year, Dargan reached out to MWNN with a proposal for working with the organization to find internship placements for students, Cross said.
“So the program that was developed with funding by the University to support internships managed by MWNN and building on the relationships that we have in the community with the nonprofits really allowed us to be able to identify organizations that were interested in having interns and then link interns to pretty significant, I think, experiences that they're having in the nonprofits,” she said.
Cross added the organization is grateful for its partnership with FSU.
“It's really an opportunity for us to build cultural awareness for us to build a focus lens on equity and justice by having people who can really speak to issues that are happening in their community from a very direct experiential place,” she said.
Britania Lewis, a senior business major, said she is interning for the MetroWest Food Collaborative, a nonprofit aimed at promoting and supporting policies and programs related to equal access to food.
Lewis said she is currently working on the nonprofit’s website and social media presence, while also planning for a legislative breakfast where legislators will meet with the organization and discuss funding.
She said it’s “really great,” but she got “thrown into it” in an “unconventional way” because the first meeting she attended was about the Food Summit and involved legislators.
“It was interesting just to be in the room with these people and having these ideas coming together was great,” she added. “I learned a lot and I'm getting to meet a lot of new people and just be able to collaborate and get work done.”
Lewis said following graduation, she wants to pursue operations or project management, adding her experience at the internship - making new connections and learning more about how those individuals came into their roles - will ultimately benefit her in her career.
She said the “key” to civic engagement is “reaching out to the community and letting people know that we're here and we're doing the work and we want you to be part of the work.”
Emily Rosenberg, a junior political science major, said she is interning for the Mental Health Collaborative, a nonprofit in Hopkinton aimed at promoting mental health awareness, which is done in part by the training it offers to schools and corporations.
Rosenberg is currently writing letters to legislators encouraging them to add an amendment to their bills that mandate mental health training because those bills sometimes do not specify when the training needs to be completed.
She added Massachusetts does not have a mental health training mandate, but she is also writing a letter to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu because she is “extremely passionate about mental health.”
Rosenberg said, “She wants to create a stronger platform to support people with mental illnesses.”
She said she appreciates the opportunity this internship gives her to develop research skills for political policy, including mental health education and the platforms of senators and representatives.
Rosenberg added she is also working with students making videos about their experiences with mental health.
“I've always been really passionate about mental health education,” Rosenberg said. “I actually came to college wanting to do mental health policy.”
She said civic engagement is important because she believes people should get involved with and learn more about their community and ways they can help.
Geanny Infante, a senior fashion design and retailing major, said she is interning for Amazing Things Art Center (ATAC), a nonprofit in Framingham with an art and music focus that hosts community events.
Infante said she is working on the marketing logistics for the nonprofit, which involves contacting local businesses about promotional opportunities, creating a route for posting, and a guide for the different requirements a location may have regarding advertisements.
She said she appreciates the time flexibility that comes with this internship as most of it is working from home with no set schedule.
Infante added this allows her to get more experience with and improve her time management skills.
Following graduation this December, Infante said she wants to be part of a production team for which she can design clothes for companies.
When she initially began studying for her degree, she said she was worried about the job prospects related to her major.
“But now new jobs are being created, and a lot of places are hiring,” Infante said, adding her internship experience at ATAC will help her resumé when she begins to apply for jobs in January and February.
Infante said civic engagement is important because “not only are you helping out your local community, but you're also getting experience yourself and can grow as an individual.”
Dargan said, “We are intentionally having a social justice, anti-racist focus with our work.
“You don't want to have the kind of white savior mentality with this kind of work, and so there's some really good literature out there on how to avoid that and how to listen to the people in the community to make sure you're doing work that is beneficial, and recognizes their strengths at all times and recognizes what people have been through,” she added.
Dargan said her short-term goal for the center is “to see a big increase in interest in participation and community-engaged learning. In the long term, I would love it to be embedded in the fabric of the University, so that people in this community know that Framingham State is there for them.”
[Editor’s Note: Leighah Beausoleil is a member of the MetroWest Nonprofit Network board, but does not work with the Civic Engagement and Service Learning Center. Emily Rosenberg is Associate Editor of The Gatepost.]