*Model Program*

Southwestern University - TX

President: Jake Schrum

Contact Person: Suzanna Pukys

Through a grant from the Verizon Foundation, 18 Southwestern University student interns worked full-time for 10 weeks during the summers of 2008 and 2009 for agencies committed to addressing the epidemic of domestic and family violence. Our nonprofit partners included two domestic violence shelters, a forensic interview and counseling center for physically/sexually abused children, a shelter exclusively for children removed from their homes by Child Protective Services, an agency targeting families with a history of violence directly tied to substance abuse, and the victims' assistance unit of local law enforcement. Students served as case managers, counselors, advocates, prevention and resource specialists, teachers, and caregivers. These internships allowed students to integrate into the work environment, essentially, as short-term staff members. The work was intentionally designed to maximize the students’ understanding of respective organizational mission, vision, infrastructure, target population, and assessment of true impact, and, at the same time, to be of the greatest use to organizational staff.

Agencies provided training and mentoring to interns to develop an understanding of the complexities of the organization as well as the issue of violence itself. The student-community partner relationship was entirely based upon principles of reciprocity: community partners received much-needed summer help and students gained insight and experience around a pressing social problem. The program allowed students who already had a passion for the issue to explore it in greater depth, and by implementing the program over the summer and paying students a salary, they were able to focus fully on the work without having to balance a full-time academic workload or other employment. The program ensured that students kept their focus on their internship work by providing campus housing and a work stipend to each student intern. These provisions eliminated students’ concerns about costs and the need to earn wages, and allowed our partnering agencies to count the interns’ labor as volunteer help, which was helpful for their grant-seeking and making. Campus housing served another purpose: to build community among the students and create a shared space for support and reflection. Each week, the interns came together to share a meal, to “unpack” experiences, and to reflect on the work.

Throughout the 10 weeks, students shared their thoughts on daily triumphs and challenges, discussed the social and public systems that mitigate the perpetuation of violence, debated possible solutions, and formed their individual notions of how to affect change. Our community partners participated in these meetings as well – not just as experts who shed light on the causes of and responses to domestic and family violence – but as community members who understood the challenges of dealing with these issues in such a direct way. Our partners, as well as Southwestern’s Counseling Services Office, provided critical support for all participants in the program to ensure that they processed their experiences in the field in healthy ways.

The program was one of guided experience in the field and guided reflection at the University – an intentional, structured, experiential, and community-based learning opportunity that mutually benefited both students and community partners. It effectively raised their awareness about a key issue in our community that is often underestimated, misunderstood, or ignored, and each of them has committed to continuing to work on the issue not just as undergraduates, but as professionals and educated citizens.

As the summer portion of the program concluded, students were charged with educating and raising awareness about this issue among the campus and greater community throughout the current academic year. They are actualizing this commitment by serving as leaders in campus programs dealing with violence, developing community-based learning projects related to their summer experiences within their classes, and continuing to work as volunteers for the partnering agencies with which they were placed over the summer.

Participating students who have since graduated from Southwestern have already used the experience as a catalyst that led them to a specific research area or social work focus in graduate school, to become Americorps*VISTAs, and to pursue work as child advocates. By giving students the ability to become immersed in the work of our community partners, creating a consistent and safe place for reflection, requiring students to continue their work in a sustained, protracted way, and removing the financial barriers to participation in such meaningful exploration, we believe this is a model from which other higher education institutions and nonprofits dealing with myriad social justice issues can benefit, from which students can develop genuine understandings of social problems and their complexities, and from which others in the community-based learning movement can learn.