Throughout this semester, one of UConn senior Cassandra Delone’s “classrooms” has been the bustling office of the Urban League of Greater Hartford, where she’s part of a team helping city residents navigate complex financial and housing issues.
For junior Jaclyn Dougan, her “classrooms” include a Hartford nonprofit agency where she helps guide young children past traumatic experiences through a program of therapeutic and educational activities.
And for sophomore Tekowa Omara-Otunnu, her “class work” includes tutoring recent immigrants and refugees, and helping tend one of the Hartford Food System’s urban gardens to ensure fresh, nutritious produce for city dwellers.
These students are among several participating this spring in UConn’s Urban Semester program, which was launched more than 40 years ago to combine hands-on education in various fields with community outreach and service to Connecticut’s capital city.
For the undergraduates, it’s an opportunity to live in a Hartford apartment with others in the program, and work at credit-bearing internships for up to 27 hours a week. Their intern roles range from early childhood education aides to assistants at social service agencies, education programs, shelters, and the offices of legislators representing some of Connecticut’s most struggling urban centers.
The students also take two seminar-style classes at UConn’s Greater Hartford campus, finishing the semester with 15 credits and much broader knowledge of urban problems and potential solutions than they’d find in a textbook or traditional class.
The students say they’re gaining far more than the credits and a line on their resumes, though. Several say the satisfaction of helping improve other people’s lives has been the highlight of their experiences, and has helped solidify the interest in public service that attracted them to the Urban Semester program in the first place.
“We’re learning a lot from our own internships, but also from hearing about each other’s internships,” says Dougan ’13 (CLAS), a Barkhamsted native studying human development and family studies at UConn’s Torrington campus.
Dougan’s internship is at Youth United for Survival, a Hartford-based nonprofit agency where she works in a program that helps children overcome traumatic experiences. She also helps in its after-school program at Hartford’s McDonough Middle School, where students get homework help and work on crafts and other projects.
“Coming from Barkhamsted, living right in the city has been an education in itself and a really great part of the internship,” Dougan says.
Channeling students’ desire to help
The Urban Semester program started in 1968 as an outgrowth of students’ desire to work in cities to fight problems associated with poverty, blight, racism, and other social and economic inequities. Now offered under the aegis of the Study Abroad Office, the program draws undergraduates from a wide variety of majors.
“It’s something that fits a lot of different people’s interests because we have a lot of options for their internships and learning experiences,” says Louise Simmons, the program’s director and a professor at UConn’s School of Social Work. “Hartford is quite an incredible setting because we are one of the poorest cities in the country on several measures, but at the same time, it’s a small city so students can meet a lot of people in a short period of time.”
The full-semester internships are designed to give students enough time at the agencies to take on major projects, both so they can learn the responsibilities of those career fields and so they can see their work making a tangible difference in people’s lives.
Several students have gone on after graduation to work at the agencies or offices where they interned, Simmons says, and some alumni of the program are now supervising this generation’s interns.
One of those past interns, Jennifer Wilder-Jackson ’03 (BUS), ’08 MSW is among them. She served her Urban Semester internship at the Hartford-based Our Piece of the Pie agency, and now is site facilitator for The American Place, a service at the Hartford Public Library to help immigrants and refugees with programs on American citizenship, learning English, and making cultural adjustments.
Wilder-Jackson now works with Omara-Otunnu, a sophomore from Storrs who is majoring in political science and human rights. She interns at The American Place, along with working on youth programs at the Hartford Food System’s office, helping tend its gardens, and working with exhibits and materials at the library’s Hartford History Center.
Omara-Otunnu was an intern in the fall semester at the Connecticut Fair Housing Center as part of a sociology class and, she says, “That’s when I really fell in love with Hartford and I realized that you don’t have to go to an international site to help people. There’s so much that needs to be done in our own communities.”
The interns’ energy and interest in public service in Hartford has also helped scores of agencies and groups over the decades, including Our Piece of the Pie, where Wilder-Jackson interned almost 10 years ago and where two students are currently interning.
“The students have been go-getters who are willing to go out and find information, and that’s very valuable for us,” says Scott Sugarman, director of educational initiatives at the agency, which runs Hartford’s Opportunity High School with the city’s public school system. This semester’s interns have been helping conduct intensive research as the agency considers applying for permission to launch a charter school.
A well-rounded experience
Simmons, the Urban Semester program’s director, says the diverse internship opportunities have helped many of its UConn students launch careers in education, social work, public policy, law, labor organizing, nonprofit agency management, and other fields.
Chituwa Kawimbe ’12 (CLAS), a senior originally from Zambia who expects to graduate in December with a degree in urban and community studies, says she believes her Urban Semester experiences will be beneficial when she eventually enters a graduate program in public health and urban planning. She’s interning on some days at the Legal Assistance Resource Center of Connecticut and, on other days, as a constituent services aide in the legislative office of New Haven state Sen. Toni Harp.
“The two courses we’re also taking give you a broader view of the academic side of things, and what issues or policies remain to be tackled. The courses and our internships end up complementing each other well,” Kawimbe says.
Cassandra Delone ’12 (CANR), who graduates in May with a degree in resource economics, is also interning in Sen. Harp’s office, while coordinating a financial fitness class for students through her other internship at the Urban League of Greater Hartford.
The courses and our internships end up complementing each other well.
Delone is considering careers in the insurance and financial industry and, though the Urban League work is more in line with those career goals, she says she also wanted to intern at the senator’s office because she’d had no exposure to state politics and wanted to understand how policy changes occur at the legislative level.
“I thought it was important to be aware of that,” says Delone, a native of Haiti who moved to Hartford with her family in 2006. “All of the [legislative] hearings I’ve gone to have been so interesting, and it has really given me an understanding of how policies and programs get changed in the state.”
The Urban Semester interns say the program also provides a valuable social benefit: a way for UConn undergraduates with similar interests in social justice to find each other, despite their different majors, backgrounds, and career paths.
So while gaining work experience, UConn credits, and the satisfaction of helping children and others who need their employers’ services, many of the Urban Semester interns say they’ve discovered lasting friendships.
“I’ve always been concerned with finding other students who are passionate about being socially aware and creating positive change,” Omara-Otunnu says, “so it’s been great to meet some like-minded people that I might not have met otherwise.”