The Colgate Scene
Idealism trumps reality
First summer of Utica Field School exceeds
|By Gary E. Frank|
Michael Brumbaugh's internship at Utica's AIDS Community Resource Center took him and fellow intern Jenny Buntman '03 into some of the toughest areas in Utica with information on HIV/AIDS. "I thought it would be disruptive for two white, middle-class kids from Colgate to go to the worst parts of town for this outreach," said Brumbaugh, a junior. "But people weren't deterred by our presence — they still came to the table and took the brochures we were handing out." [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
On the last day of her summer internship, Joanne Campbell '03 was confronted by the fruits of her labor — nearly 300 children careening joyfully through Utica's Children's Museum.
From the Iroquois longhouse, to the Living Science Center, to the weather station and the Dinorama Dinosaur exhibit, the children flocked to everything the museum offered. For many, if not most, of the children from the Boys and Girls Club of Utica, this was their first visit to the museum, which is housed in an old factory next to the city's railroad station. That they were there at all is due, in large part, to Colgate students who helped forge new links among nonprofit organizations in Utica.
Campbell and 15 other Colgate students were participants in the first Utica Field School, a paid internship program launched by Colgate's Center for Outreach, Volunteerism and Education (COVE) with support from the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties and the Lewis G. Schaene-man Jr. Foundation. The student interns worked four days a week at their respective agencies and met each Friday to discuss their experiences. The field school was designed to help the COVE strengthen new relationships that have been established between Colgate and Utica-based nonprofit organizations, according to Adam Weinberg, associate professor of sociology and the COVE's director of service learning. The program went well beyond expectations in its first year, said Weinberg.
"We had a few different goals when we started out," Weinberg said. "We hoped to begin building some good partnerships with nonprofit organizations in Utica. We hoped that the students would have good internships, which we defined as doing more than just office work, and we hoped we would begin to help our students find out a bit more about what we're trying to do at the COVE, which is to get students to think critically about community service. In multiple ways, we blew past those expectations."
As with dozens of other cities in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, the post-industrial economy hasn't been kind to Utica. From the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 through the early 1960s, the region rode the Industrial Revolution to growth and a measure of prosperity, attracting waves of Irish, Italian, Polish and German immigrants. Utica produced governors, presidential candidates, even a vice president. By the 1940s, the city's population exceeded 100,000. But the years following World War II saw the beginning of a decades-long decline in the local economy as many manufacturing firms moved South, overseas, or simply went out of business. The end of the Cold War brought the closing of nearby Griffiss Air Force Base and the contraction, if not closure, of defense-related industry in the area. As jobs disappeared, Utica's population fell to its present level of around 61,000. (The area's population drop might have been more extreme if not for an influx of new immigrants, first from Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and more recently from Belarus, Russia, Bosnia and Sudan, adding new complexities to the local multi-ethnic population.) Native Uticans with a mordant sense of humor may tell you it's appropriate that General Dan Butterfield, the composer of the military lullaby "Taps," hailed from the city because the business cycle has blown "Taps" over the local economy for the past 40 years.
In the wake of the region's economic deterioration came the attendant social maladies of drugs, shattered families, dysfunctional schools, crime, declining public services and an eroding tax base. In short, the Utica area offers extensive challenges to nonprofit organizations working to reduce poverty and advance community and economic development.
Among the agencies participating in the Utica Field School were the AIDS Community Resource Center, JCTOD Outreach, Hope House, Central New York Arts Council, Utica Public Library, Sculpture Space and the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.
"They did what nonprofits haven't been able to do . . . sit down together and share what they are doing"
"I think one of the main aims of the COVE is to combine education with community interaction, which is exactly what the Children's Museum is all about," said Campbell, who visited the museum herself while growing up near Utica.
Campbell admits to setting "lofty" goals for her internship. "I was going to transform everything for the better within 10 weeks," she said.
But as the internship progressed, the reality of the museum's limited resources soon made Campbell realize that she had to modify her goals. "I would have loved to have set up a completely new exhibit but we didn't have the funding," said Campbell, who plans to volunteer at the museum during the academic year.
Such feelings are to be expected, Weinberg said, when idealism collides with reality.
"They start out with this idyllic vision that they're going to go in, do great things, achieve wonderful outcomes and leave after 10 weeks," said Weinberg. "If they actually leave thinking that, then they've gotten just a thin view of what's going on in urban America."
Weinberg believes there is a natural progression to the students' experience when programs like the Utica Field School work well. "The students start off feeling very idealistic for the first two weeks. By week five, most students are very discouraged and feel overwhelmed," he said. "By the end of 10 weeks, they start to understand how you get beyond that."
A key component to achieving that understanding was the meeting of field school interns at the COVE every Friday. "It was through the weekly meetings that students learned what it really means to be a community builder," Weinberg said, "to go someplace, confront hard realities, come back to campus and figure out where the discouragement is coming from, to map local assets and connect those assets to address these problems."
Campbell agreed. "It [the Friday meeting] definitely helps me to re-center how I think about the internship and what I do here," she said. "It helps me to see the bigger picture — that it does matter that I'm here."
New collaborations But perhaps the most important consequence of the weekly meeting (and a side benefit of many interns carpooling from Hamilton) are the connections the students began to build between the nonprofits as they shared their experiences. Out of those new ties came collaborations such as the Boys and Girls Club's visit to the Children's Museum, and links between the Boys and Girls Club and the Mohawk Resource Center for Refugees to serve the needs of the local Bosnian community. Plans are underway to establish college preparatory tutoring classes taught by student volunteers, to draft a resource guide for faculty about ways to incorporate the Utica area's experiences into their classes, and to convene a summit meeting this fall with students from Hamilton College in nearby Clinton over how to better coordinate volunteer efforts.
"I think it's great that we're spread out all over Utica because not that many Colgate students know what goes on in Utica and know what kind of life people live here, and it's only 40 minutes down the road," said Lorraine Coulter '03, who interned at the refugee center.
Peggy O'Shea, program officer for the Community Foundation, said the collaborations between nonprofits brought about through the efforts of the student interns was an unanticipated benefit of the field school. (The Community Foundation supported the Utica Field School with a $75,500 grant.)
"They [the students] did what nonprofits haven't been able to do, and that's sit down together and share what they are doing," O'Shea said.
Nonprofit organizations are becoming more willing to meet and discuss their shared interests, said O'Shea, because they realizing that it could have a "tremendous positive impact."
"For nonprofits, every day is a struggle to provide a particular service and
to secure funding," she said. "If nonprofits could be given the forum to do
just that I think that something positive would grow out of that."
"The Community Foundation greatly embraces this project," said O'Shea. "We're very happy to have been a part of it."
Weinberg believes three central outcomes help make the field school a success during its first summer. "We now have 15 students who are more sophisticated, more hopeful and more capable of creating long-term social change as they go about their everyday lives," said Weinberg. "We have real partnerships, with real programs that will divert real resources to Utica on a daily basis. We have the beginnings of some viable relationships between organizations in Utica that may only be blocks apart, that really could and should be working together, and now have some students who are willing to help them build bridges with each other. I think that's pretty significant for 10 weeks."
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