Community fellows blend academic and experiential learning

Bill Miner, a sociology graduate student and community fellow, has worked with the Lehigh County Prison.

Bill Miner, a graduate student in sociology, spends a great deal of time at the Lehigh County Prison—analyzing statistical data and trends among parole violators to aid the administration’s efforts to combat recidivism.
Miner is participating in Lehigh’s Community Fellows program, which gives graduate students the opportunity to integrate social activism into their formal academic settings. Fellows are able to complete a graduate degree in one year while working 15 hours a week with a local agency or company on projects that are designed to impact the local community. In return, the agencies and the university provide a significant portion of the student’s tuition.
“This is really a three-way partnership between the student, the community agency and Lehigh—and everyone gains from it,” says Kimberley Carrell-Smith, director of the program.
Community Fellows are enrolled in classes that directly relate to their work in non-profit or governmental organizations, exposing them to both academic and experiential learning. The program places students with agencies that incorporate both their academic and social interests. Over 42 community partners have participated in the program since it began just over seven years ago.
“I think the number of partnering agencies is a testament to the need for such a program in our community. The agencies really do recognize the benefits they are getting for a relatively small contribution to the student's tuition,” says Carrell-Smith. “They are very happy to have such high quality ‘employees’ who have access to great university resources, and they often say how impressed they are by the dedication and professionalism of the Fellows.”
Miner has greatly assisted the work being done within the Lehigh County Department of Corrections to track what brings former inmates back to prison. Going forward, he plans to interview a sample of inmates to identify issues and potential programs that affect them in the prison, and to explore ideas that could reduce the likelihood that they will return to jail after release.
Learning outside the classroom

Kyle Miller, a community fellow who worked with Renew Lehigh Valley, chats with to Kimberley Carrell-Smith, director of the program.

“We realized that we lacked in-depth research on the people released back into the community,” said Edward Sweeney, director of the Lehigh County Department of Corrections, who works closely with Miner.
“My classes, although very interactive, are only located in a nice sanitized classroom,” adds Miner. “At the prison, I can see the effects of social forces firsthand and I can observe how different sociological theories play out in the community, and I can see how everything is interrelated.”
Another current Fellow, Elizabeth Roth, a Presidential Scholar in the political science department, agrees that her work as a Fellow provides a nice contrast to the rest of her curriculum. Roth is working on a joint project between the St. Luke’s Hospital Department of Community Health and assistant professor of political science Breena Holland to examine the relationship between environmental pollution and asthma among Bethlehem children.
“It is very grounding to leave the sheltered university setting and not only be reminded of the disparity that exists in our community, but also of the amazing effort being put forth by different local agencies to make change,” says Roth. “I am also reminded that there is a purpose to my education, and that by learning more I can impact the world around me.”
Roth will ultimately develop a plan of community engagement to promote awareness about the connection between environmental issues and asthma, while gaining community support to advocate for environmental policy changes that will improve asthma locally.
Both Miner and Roth feel a deeper connection to the surrounding Lehigh Valley area as a result of interacting with community members and agency officials. While some students work in more research-oriented roles, others are directly working with individual community members.
Sarah Brennan, an M.A. candidate in political science, is working with the Bethlehem Community Collaborative (BCC), an organization composed of leaders in government, education and business in Bethlehem who want to improve the potential for individual success, and facilitate community connectedness for young people within the Bethlehem Area School District.
In her first semester, Brennan arranged and facilitated a diverse range of focus groups with Bethlehem area youth between the ages of 12-18 to discuss their needs, desires, hopes and goals. By the end of her tenure as a Community Fellow, Sarah will have established a Youth Council of Bethlehem Area students, drawn from demographically, socio-economically, ethnically and racially diverse backgrounds.
Other current Fellows are partnering with organizations such as the Allentown Redevelopment Authority, the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, Renew Lehigh Valley and the United Way.
“It is pretty rewarding to know that so many Fellows have done so much for the community,” Carrell-Smith says. “Lehigh should be enormously proud of this contribution to the local area.”
Carrell-Smith says she is already looking ahead to the 2010-2011 Community Fellows Program. Prospective Fellows or community organizations can find more information on the Community Fellows Web site.
--Ilana Bornstein and Tricia Long