Seeing the Bigger Picture

Submitted by Caroline J. Hanna

It is 1:45 p.m. one muggy July afternoon at the Amherst Survival Center, 15 minutes before its doors are supposed to close for the day, and there’s a line about 20 long stretching into an un-air conditioned back room. Among its many other services, the agency has a food pantry that provides a month’s worth of nutritional staples to families who meet certain income criteria, and the people here are queuing up for fresh vegetables, bread and canned goods.

One of the Amherst students I’m here to see, intern Roman Guatam ’11, is chattily—if sweatily—helping pack and distribute boxes of food. The other, Will Mateo ’11, is out collecting donations from local restaurants, grocers and other charities. “We pretty much do whatever needs to be done here,” Guatam tells me cheerfully after he and fellow ASC staffers have finished tending to all in the line (well after 2 p.m.), noting with pride that he and Mateo recently organized and coordinated a community food drive with a nearby supermarket. “I love it—meeting and helping people in the community in this way gives you a real sense of worth.”

Guatam, a native of Katmandu, Nepal, and Mateo, of Truth Or Consequences, N.M., came to the ASC thanks to the Citizen Summer program, a Center for Community Engagement project that, in its first year, is subsidizing nearly 200 Amherst student interns at various local, regional, national and international non-profits and non-governmental organizations this summer. Through three Citizen Summer initiatives (the Pioneer Valley Partnership, Partnership and Fellowships for Action program) interested undergraduates applied to work with groups already identified by the CCE or researched and secured their own public service jobs. Participating students received a modest stipend from the college for their work, while the participating groups—which, in addition to the ASC, include the National Peace Corps Association in Washington, D.C.; the Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness in Punjab, Pakistan; East River Legal Services in Sioux Fall, S.D.; and Amherst Regional Public Schools, among many others—receive an energetic and willing volunteer or two (or three or four).

“We wanted to provide experiences that could make the biggest impact on students, and summer internships in particular can really change a student’s life,” explains Molly Mead, director of the CCE, of the thinking behind Citizen Summer. “They enable students to be somewhere full-time for a significant period of time and do real work that can be incredibly valuable to an organization. They also enable students to meet so many different people and make some amazing personal and career connections… Our hope is that, through these opportunities, students will also be able to make links to coursework they’ve completed, and continue to make links to coursework in the future.”

Survival Center
Roman Guatam '11 (left) and Will Matteo '11 (right) prepare lunch at
the Amherst Survival Center.

The CCE makes those links to coursework and the “real world” more explicit for participants by asking them to think and reflect on their experiences. Students such as Guatam and Mateo in the regionally focused Pioneer Valley Partnership Program work at their organizations Monday through Thursday and then gather on Fridays for further training and discussion with CCE staffers. (Such activities have involved everything from lectures by experts in various fields to field trips to other non-profits around the Pioneer Valley to conversations on how to be effective advocates.) Those interning at non-profits or NGOs outside of Western Massachusetts, on the other hand, put in a full week of work and submit regular written reflections on their internship experiences. “Students are telling me they feel they’re learning a lot, being mentored, appreciated and making connections for future careers,” says Mead. “But more than anything, I think it’s helping them see the bigger picture, which is really wonderful.”

Take Jessica Mestre ’10, an intern with Un Techo para mi Pais (or One Roof for my Country), who has been helping create a communications campaign for social intervention programs fighting extreme poverty in Latin America, taking photos and constructing “emergency houses” in Montevideo, Uruguay, since June. “My time in Uruguay has been humbling,” she writes me in an e-mail. “Not only have I met a group of brilliant, dedicated youth that run the entire organization, but I have also been confronted with an extreme poverty that I never knew before this summer. It is difficult to believe that an 18-square-meter, one-room wooden box with no bathroom is an improvement for these families, but it is a harsh reality. I hope to bring the efforts of Un Techo to Amherst upon my return.”

Partner organizations are likewise thrilled with the help. “The Amherst interns have been great,” says Ben Guest ’97, program manager with the Mississippi Teacher Corps (MTC), which has four Citizen Summer interns this summer. He says his students have been assisting with the MTC Summer School for at-risk youth, working with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to create lesson plans and resources for integrating the history of the Civil Rights Movement into coursework and working at the MTC office interviewing administers and helping plan fall recruiting, among other things.

“Like most Amherst students, [the CCE interns] are intelligent and inquisitive, and have a highly developed sense of community service,” he says. (Learn more about Guest’s students, Elise Tropiano ’09, Latisha Wilson ’09, Amanda McGinn ’10 and Christine Lyons ’11 here.) Of whether he would work with Amherst undergraduates again, Guest replies: “In a heartbeat.”

Back at the ASC, a similarly enthusiastic Tracy Levy, Guatam and Mateo’s supervisor and the agency’s program director and volunteer coordinator, tells me that she has been struck by how quickly the young men have made an impact. “The ideas, energy and feedback from them have just been amazing—I don’t know what we’re going to do when they leave,” she says, adding that Guatam and Mateo’s “youthful perspective and reliability added a lot to the team… I hope our partnership with the CCE continues to build and we work with more students like them.”

Such comments are music to the ears of Mead, who has already made up her mind about the future of Citizen Summer. While she and her team plan to gather more comments—both negative and positive—from partner organizations and students in the fall, “those things won’t tell us whether or not to do this again,” she says. “They will help us refine and improve the program for the coming years. Based on all that we’re hearing, it’s absolutely clear that we will, can and should offer Citizen Summer again.”