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Interior design students in Associate Professor Nancy Chwiecko’s class developed a plan for office space for the NorthEast Neighborhood Alliance. Making a presentation to NENA leaders are, from left (facing the camera): Carly Calabria, Candi Gleason, Chrissy Scheuing, Jessica Fortunato, Linda De Maso, and Kathy Petrinec.

Incorporating service into coursework helps students, community

A growing number of RIT professors incorporate "community-based learning" in their classes. RIT's Learn and Serve America project created a partnership with Rochester's NorthEast Neighborhood Alliance (NENA), a group that serves one of the city's poorest areas. Initiated by the College of Liberal Arts, the project received a $420,000 grant from the Corporation for National Service.

The area in served by NENA includes three of the city's most distressed neighborhoods: Upper Falls, North Marketview Heights and South Marketview Heights. The organization has an ambitious plan that includes small business development through training and micro-lending, a neighborhood news magazine, a restaurant, and expansion of its urban agriculture project. The RIT-NENA connection is unusual among community-based education projects because it is focused on economic development rather than human service, notes Ann Howard, director of the public policy department in the College of Liberal Arts and Learn and Serve America program director.

Chrissy Scheuing explains details of the office space plan.

"NENA was interested in RIT's applied orientation," Howard notes.

Courses in several RIT colleges will focus on the NENA initiatives, with classroom learning and hands-on experience. For the first course, launched in spring 2000, seniors in interior design produced a plan to convert an old building near Rochester's Public Market into functional office space for NENA. Other courses, ranging from Assessing Community Needs (social work department) to Managerial Consulting (business management) to Graphic Information Systems (science, technology and society, and environmental science) were added in the current school year.

"There is not a college on campus that doesn't have potential for community partnering," says Howard. "This gives students one more opportunity to discover what they have to offer on a professional level."

Delaine Cook-Greene, co-founder and executive director of NENA, says the relationship provides the organization with needed expertise and manpower. "If we didn't see it as useful, we wouldn't have put so much work into setting it up," she says. But also important, she says, is the opportunity for neighborhood children to connect with the RIT students - and for the RIT students to become aware of aspects of the world they might not otherwise experience.

"The nurturing component is very valuable," says Cook-Green. "I see this as developing a family, a village."

Because students learn so much from community service, Associate Photography Professor Loret Gnivecki Steinberg has made it a part of her classes for a dozen years.

She's folded community service into her Photography 1 and other classes, but the concept has really blossomed in the highly successful course, Community Service Documentary Project. Steinberg makes connections with area agencies that have an idea for a photographic project, and RIT students pull it together.

The concepts take many forms, Steinberg notes. For instance, RIT students produced a book showing life through the eyes of high-school dropouts at the Threshold Learning Center, a Rochester program providing training for job skills and classes for young people seeking a General Equivalency Diploma (GED). As is typical for these projects, there was more involved more than just taking pictures. The goal was true collaboration, with RIT students teaching and mentoring as well as photographing.

"The depth of the connection, the understanding, shows in the work," says Steinberg. "The pictures are richer, going beyond the surface.

"It is more work for the teacher," she admits. "Logistically, it can be a nightmare. But the students have shown me again and again that this is worth the effort."

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