While Philadelphia is plagued by a 26 percent poverty rate, it is also home to hundreds of programs, agencies and organizations that help low-income and marginalized people find housing assistance, job training, legal help, food access, college planning support and more. Accessing these resources and opportunities, however, can be a challenge due to the complexity of the social service landscape.
An initiative from Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement is addressing this issue through a service called UConnect, which trains members of the Drexel community to act as navigators to help connect local residents with a range of services and opportunities. Based at the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, UConnect serves Drexel’s neighboring “Promise Zone” communities of West Philadelphia.
“Creating and cultivating interpersonal connections is in many ways at the heart of how we approach civic engagement at Drexel,” says Cicely Peterson-Mangum, executive director for the Dornsife Center.
“The UConnect model lets our students, faculty and staff work in collaboration with residents to facilitate access to important resources, and it gives members of the Drexel community an opportunity to act as advocates for our neighbors.”
The urban extension center functions as a navigational referral system. Students and other trained volunteers, including Drexel alumni, meet with community members one-on-one to assess needs, set goals — from finding employment to securing housing and education — and then connect them with vital community resources. But the service doesn’t stop there — the navigators continue to track clients’ progress until their needs have been met.
The outcomes of the program are measured and evaluated to provide evidence for grants and support. The effort tracks the program’s effectiveness, including the number and quality of referrals as well as progress toward achieving community members’ goals. It will also glean community member and partner feedback to continually monitor and improve UConnect’s services.
The backbone of staffing for the center is provided by students from the criminal justice course Justice in our Community, a Community-Based Learning course offered each term in the College of Arts and Sciences. The class is taught by Cyndi Rickards, EdD, senior assistant dean for community engagement and assistant teaching professor in the Department of Criminology and Justice Studies.
“The College’s Community-Based Learning courses are the perfect vehicle for helping to address the issues that impact our local communities,” says CoAS Dean Donna Murasko, PhD. “By training our students to work proactively with our neighbors who are facing these issues, students learn not only the theoretical principles underlying social change, but also the practical skills needed to make these changes and, importantly, the equally powerful skills of empathy and understanding.”
To date, the organization has received $40,000 from the Service Year + Higher Ed Innovation Challenge, taking home both the private university category and the audience choice award. Finalists were invited to present program concepts that promote the integration of learning and service during college. CoAS students Awurama Agyei ’18 (one of the first trained navigators) and Amelia Fisher ’17 (UConnect’s first co-op student) were both integral parts of the pitch.
Gina Gendusa, associate director in the Lindy Center and former program director for LIFT Philadelphia, oversees UConnect’s community programmatic elements, while Rickards directs the academic components.
“Students learn first-hand, in a very personal and human way, about knowledge application and real and pervasive issues of social justice,” says Rickards. “We hope that students will take the UConnect experience with them back into their homes, classrooms and professional lives, becoming the civically engaged change agents our communities need.”
Form more information or to make an appointment, please call 215.571.4860.