Heart in Hand: Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholars Serve Thousands

civicscholars3As Amy Mallon recalls, while she didn’t have any official culinary training, she did have just the right ingredient – an overwhelming passion to help others. The Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholar quickly matured from her role volunteering in the community kitchen at The Neighborhood Center in Camden, to becoming the assistant chef and volunteer coordinator for the busy, daily meals. Serving others was “instant gratification,” she says, but the lasting connections she made were even sweeter.

“My most rewarding experiences are meeting people from the community around Camden – some of whom I had served several years ago – and they still remember my face and name,” says Mallon, a social work major who serves as a resident assistant on campus. “And I remember theirs.”

The Voorhees resident, who has served in more than 25 organizations throughout the city, is a member of a fast-growing and indispensable cadre of Rutgers University–Camden students who are directly impacting the lives of potentially thousands of citizens in Camden and the South Jersey region.

civicscholars-featureSince its inception in fall 2011, the Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholars program has partnered with more than forty organizations in the university’s host city, with civic scholars contributing to projects and initiatives ranging from community building, healthcare, volunteer recruitment, homeless outreach, youth program enrichment, college access, and urban environmental justice. Civic Scholars commit to performing 300 hours of community service over the course of an academic year, participating in various activities, serving internships, and/or completing the hands-on aspects of service-learning courses.

“What a difference that Civic Scholars are making by engaging and serving a community that needs their talent, hard work, and creativity,” says Michael Landis, executive director of The Neighborhood Center and a 1983 graduate of Rutgers–Camden. “Amy exemplifies these qualities, which I have seen in all Civic Scholars who have volunteered at the center.”

The Civic Scholars program coincides with the mission of Rutgers–Camden’s Office of Civic Engagement, which oversees the program, focusing not only on providing support for community partners and initiatives, but on fostering meaningful, practical service experiences for students, explains Nyeema Watson, acting associate chancellor for civic engagement. The program’s community partnerships have thrived, says Watson, because they are founded on these mutual objectives.

“We build these relationships with community partners with the understanding that, if we are committed for the long-term, then they are committed to letting our students grow and make contributions to their organizations,” says Watson.

civicscholars1The program is based as much on a leadership-development model as it is a community-service model, affirms the director, Tyler Hoffman, a professor of English. According to Hoffman, Civic Scholars initially “get their feet wet,” sharing a wide range of service and civic-engagement opportunities. Scholars also take a series of engaged civic-learning courses that help them to make a connection between what they are learning in the classroom and experiencing in the field.

From day one, the scholars are encouraged not only to participate, but to become truly engaged, considering actual issues that affect the organizations, and finding practical solutions, says Chris Countryman, program coordinator for student civic engagement. “We plant the seed early so that they start thinking about what they would do, or do differently, in preparation for the positions that they will have in these organizations,” he says. “We don’t want them to become cogs in the machine.”

As Civic Scholars gain hands-on experience, they identify personal community-service goals and objectives, and focus on a particular organization to take on specific roles and responsibilities. Ultimately, they assume leadership roles within their respective organizations, involved in all aspects of program development.

“Amy is a perfect example of how Civic Scholars can be so integral to these community organizations that they develop opportunities that are even beyond the scope of the program,” says Hoffman. “She has changed her career goals – and her career trajectory – based on her experiences.”

Civic Scholars also benefit from financial assistance and resources provided by Rutgers–Camden and the Bonner Foundation. They receive a $2,000 scholarship awarded each year by their academic unit and, after completing 300 hours of community service, are eligible to earn a $1,175 AmeriCorps Education Award from the foundation. The Civic Scholars program also annually receives a Bonner Leader grant, a portion of which is used to pay for students and staff to attend the annual Bonner Summer Leadership Institute.

civicscholars2As the fall 2014 semester gets underway, the first cohort of Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholars will embark on their final year, while a new cohort of 24 scholars has been welcomed into the fold. As Watson explains, the success of the program has had a “multiplying effect,” both on their ability to recruit new students, and to establish more partnerships that will further impact the City of Camden and the South Jersey region.

“Now people are seeing all the contributions that Rutgers–Camden students are making, and know that we are committed to being there for them,” says Watson. “It just goes to show that, with a little encouragement and support, you can do some really transformative things.”

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