We CU recently launched to empower University of Illinois students to contribute meaningful solutions to problems faced by community organizations. Students are matched with community-based projects on GivePulse, an online platform. We spoke with Co-Directors of We CU: Katie Shumway, Director of the School of Social Work’s Community Learning Lab and Emily Stone, Research Development Manager for the College of Education and Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute about how they started this journey and what comes next for We CU.
Katie Shumway, Director of the School of Social Work’s Community Learning Lab (Left) and Emily Stone, Research Development Manager for the College of Education and Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute (Right) are Co-directors of the We CU program.
What inspired you to launch this initiative and what excites you the most about it?
KATIE: Our local community organizations are doing incredible work and we’d like to support them however we can. A goal of our program is to start with the needs of the community and by doing this we have found that the types of assistance requested by community organizations are often well-suited to the skillset of undergraduate and graduate students.
We also want to give students a sense of community and an opportunity for connection during this time of social isolation. By connecting a group of students to a community project, they have a chance to work with others, connect, and give back to the community which we hope will give them a sense of belonging and purpose during this global pandemic.
EMILY: I agree completely with Katie’s statements of motivation. In addition, students are honored for a range of academic achievements during their time at Illinois: Phi Beta Kappa (academic honor society), Summa cum Laude and more. We think students should be recognized for their community engagement. Over time, we imagine students graduating with the honor of being named a We CU Community Engaged Scholar.
Seeing the passion and excitement of students to volunteer to meet community needs inspires me every day. We anticipated running a pilot of We CU with 100 students this summer, and when 450 students signed up for information sessions, we knew that this program would be larger than anticipated.
What are some of the challenges you have faced? What has helped you continue moving the program forward?
KATIE: We made 100% of our hires remotely. It was a first for me to conduct virtual interviews.
This challenge is not unique to me, but it has been a challenge to juggle working from home. However, I feel very fortunate to have an outlet that is focused on giving back to our amazing community.
EMILY: Our biggest challenge has been meeting the evolving needs of our community partners and student volunteers, against the backdrop of a changing national landscape during COVID-19. We have gone in Illinois from a Stay at Home Order (Phase I) to Revitalization (Phase IV) of the governor’s Restore Illinois Plan all in the course of the last five weeks of the program. In addition to a changing environment because of COVID-19, our community and student volunteers have been deeply impacted by the acts of police brutality and racial injustice. With these changes, the needs of community partners evolve, and the needs of our student volunteers change as internships and jobs are canceled and then restarted again.
Are there any moments/memories in this journey that particularly stand out to you?
KATIE: In the very early stages of this program, Emily and I were asked to estimate how many students we expected to enroll. Without knowing quite what to expect, we agreed on a very broad range; 10-100. Imagine our surprise now that we have over 230 students enrolled in the program.
EMILY: To be honest with you, it has all been memorable, challenging and rewarding. We knew Illinois students were doing great work in the community already, and we wanted to develop a platform that would allow community organizations to have their needs met by a wide range of students from all colleges and disciplines.
What has been memorable to me is just how many community organizations, students, and partners across campus have bought into this vision. I think that this speaks to the shared goals of this community—from students to community partners to faculty to staff and administration and everyone in between—to create a more just society, where our residents are treated with compassion and respect.
What initiatives are you looking forward to adding to the program?
KATIE: I am so excited to match a wide variety of projects with a wide variety of classes across campus.
The nature of this program involves many campus partnerships which allows us to provide more support for these projects through trainings, student grants program, and evaluation.
Many community partners have requested assistance with program evaluation. This is something we have heard from a variety of community partners, so we hope to bring more trainings on this topic to the community in the future.
EMILY: We are exploring the training needs of our students and community partners and in response we will offer more training modules in the future to both audiences.
We also hear from our students how deeply impacted they are by the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, and our country’s broader systemic racism. We are creating more opportunities for students to discuss these events and developing more service opportunities for students to support causes connected to the Black Lives Matter movement. We are developing a training module with Dr. Will Patterson called “Exploring Cultural Wealth: A Dialogue for Discovering the Intrinsic Value of Communities” in which students can explore their own cultural wealth and think about what they bring to different kinds of communities.
What would you say to students considering joining this program in the future?
KATIE: One of my favorite things that students realize through these projects is that they have skills that are helpful to the community. These projects help students realize that they can make a difference.
EMILY: Yes, students have so much to offer. I would encourage students to think about how the academic skillsets that they are developing connect to the challenges our community is facing today. Joining We CU is an opportunity to gain hands-on experience applying student skillsets to projects submitted by community partners.
What would you say to the community organizations considering joining this program in the future?
KATIE: Thank you for the work you are doing in the community! Please feel free reach out to talk more about this program. We love collaborating with community partners and learning more about their goals, work, and project needs. We’d be happy to talk, brainstorm and answer any questions. We’ve been matching community projects since 2013 and would be more than happy to learn more about their organization and what would be helpful to them.
EMILY: Yes, thank you! We are so grateful to all the essential workers and the organizations serving our community during this time. We hope that this program can help advance that important work in ways both big and small.