Be the Change
Students apply classroom lessons to community needs through an innovative service
by Audrey Maynard (’03)
Early this year, Business Insider ranked Westminster as one of the 25 best colleges in the United States for students who want to change the world—an honor that has struck a chord with students and alums who recognize the strong service culture that infuses the learning environment at the college.
The heart of service learning at Westminster resides in the Katherine W. Dumke Center for Civic Engagement. Since its endowment in 2014, the Center for Civic Engagement has gained serious credibility as a place where students can apply theories they learn in the classroom to broad societal issues.
One of the center’s signature programs began in 2012 with seed funding from Ann Merritt (’66) and her late husband, Tony Merritt (’64). Each year the Merritt Take Action Project provides seven students with a stipend and operational budget to develop and implement projects that address social, psychological, and cultural needs in the community.
Julie Tille, director of the Center for Civic Engagement, says that the Merritt Take Action Project is an effective solution for students who want to serve their community but, for financial reasons, can’t afford to. “Over and over again we saw students who had to choose between working in the community or working a job,” Julie says.
Take Action connects project leaders with Westminster’s community partners, and faculty and staff advisors serve as mentors for each project. Project leaders are then responsible for recruiting student volunteers to implement the goals outlined in the project, broadening involvement within the campus community. “When we can work hand-in-hand with our community partners, they can count on our students for a specified amount of time. With the expertise, guidance, and support of a faculty or staff mentor, it’s a win-win for everybody,” Julie says.
The Take Action program has been so successful that several of the projects have become established within the community, and the baton is passed to new student leaders to sustain the resources these programs provide. Honors student Elhom Gosink (’17), a political science major, became a project leader after a student who started a mentoring program at East High School graduated from the college.
“Toward the end of the year she said, ‘Hey, do you want this? It either dies or you take it,’” Elhom laughs. “So I applied for a grant, and we spent the summer before she left for grad school compiling a 250-page binder full of information, sheets, and studies. I’ve been running it ever since.”
Elhom’s Take Action project guides high-achieving English language learners and first-generation students at East High through the college application process. She meets with students each week to practice ACT and SAT prep tests and helps them search and apply for scholarships, write personal statements, and fill out applications. Everyone she has mentored has gone to college—an achievement Elhom insists would have happened with or without her help. “It means a lot to me that these students trust me enough to keep showing up,” she says. “It’s humbling to read their essays and learn what they have gone through—and when they wait up to a week to see me before opening their admissions letters, it’s insane.”
Kevin Martinez (’16), who graduated in April with a degree in sociology, had such a phenomenal experience with his first Take Action project—providing college-prep guidance to students at Granite Park Junior High—that he embarked on a new project this year. Roses of Glendale is a social justice course that he created and taught to minority students living on the west side of Salt Lake City but attending high school at East High.
Kevin grew up in inner-city Los Angeles, the youngest child of an undocumented single mother from Mexico. The educational resources for Kevin were so poor that he applied to a magnet high school in East Los Angeles where his passion for activism and social justice issues was ignited. It took leaving Los Angeles for Kevin to recognize that he wanted to use the adversity he faced in his youth—poverty, crime, gang violence—to help students in Salt Lake City facing the same issues.
“In the traditional classroom setting, it’s very difficult to have conversations about our own personal experiences as marginalized students,” he says. “In the social justice course that I developed, we talk about stuff from racism to income inequality. We talk about patriarchy and the school-to-prison pipeline. We talk about mass incarceration— all these things that are rarely found in the traditional classroom.”
Kevin’s goal with Roses of Glendale is to educate his students about the sociological theories behind their lived experiences. “By connecting their reality to these concepts, I want them to understand that the system was created to keep marginalized groups outside,” he says. “I want them to know they have a voice, that their experiences are completely valid, and that they’re not alone because other people have the same stories.”
The experiences Elhom and Kevin have had through Take Action have been life-changing and would not have been possible without the resources available to them. “The Take Action Project allows me to practice my passion, apply the theories that are taught in the classroom, and still be able to work and get some form of income,” Kevin says.
Elhom is grateful for an opportunity that has rounded out her education and given meaning to what she has learned in her classes. She embraces a future of working with her peers to create positive change. “We want to see a different world, and we are a generation that is trying our hardest to make a new world,” she says. “It’s not about leaving your name on the world; it’s about grabbing as many people as you can and seeing what you can do together.
About the Westminster Review
The Westminster Review is Westminster College’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.