Student Spotlight: Jesse Slack with the VITA program

Jesse Slack, a third year accounting major at SIUC, is an avid student volunteer here on campus. From volunteering at the Dayempur Farm in Anna, helping frame artwork for the Annual Art Auction hosted by For Kids’ Sake, tutoring in the College of Business tutoring center, assembling food packages for children at Gum Drops in Carterville, to participating in Power Hour at the Boys and Girls Club of Carbondale, Jesse proves to be exemplary student and community member. But there is another volunteer program in which Jesse is involved that not only helps the community, like the programs above, but heavily relates to her major.

Jesse also volunteers with VITA, or the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which she explains is a “free program where low income individuals within the community can have their taxes prepared by IRS-certified volunteers through electronic filing.” For a student like Jesse, this program is perfect, as it not only provides her with a real life work experience related to her field, but allows her to continue to give back to our Southern Illinois community. Jesse was able to give some insight on the program in general and her experience with VITA

Q: How did you get involved?

A: Participation in the VITA program is highly encouraged in the College of Business and through the College of Business RSOs. I was presented with the information about VITA in multiple classes and at the meetings I attend for the Beta Alpha Psi, an RSO for accounting and finance majors. While it is not a requirement for accounting majors, members of Beta Alpha Psi must volunteer for at least one session of VITA

Q: As a student, how does volunteering with a program like this impact you?

A: I feel that volunteering in the program helped me to gain some real-world experience, especially since I plan to go into the tax practice after graduation. For my future endeavors I will already have some basic experience working with clients and a more cohesive learning experience compared to those who only worked within the classroom.

Q: How do you feel it impacts the community?

A: I feel that this program positively impacts the community because it provides an opportunity for people to get their taxes done when they might be in a situation where they could not file otherwise.

Q: Do students who volunteer with this program feel further connected to the community afterwards?

A: I think that the VITA volunteers definitely feel a sense of accomplishment afterwards because they are able to utilize what they are learning in their classes to help the community. This program does bring us closer to the community because many of the people who come in for the service are also eager to learn. We are able to help them understand what the different components of the tax forms mean.

Q: Would you recommend that other students in your major participate in the program and why?

A: I would definitely recommend other students to participate in the program. It’s a great way to solidify the concepts you are learning in the classroom, gain real-world experience, and help the community.

Q: Can you recall a particularly positive experience you’ve had helping a community member through VITA?

A: I can’t recall a specific experience with any one community member that was more rewarding than another. Each return that I prepared was its own positive experience in and of itself. Showing people the amount they are expected to get back is the best part.

Q: Do you have any advice for students thinking about volunteering with VITA?

A: Thinking about doing taxes for other people can be scary but don’t let that discourage you from volunteering! All volunteers have to complete a training session where you will learn what you need to know to participate and there are always other students and faculty members there to help you through the process. There are also different volunteer positions that you can do if you aren’t comfortable preparing.

Jesse ends the interview explaining that due to the issues with COVID-19 this year’s VITA program has, unfortunately, been cut short, but she strongly encourages anyone who is interested to volunteer next spring.

To volunteer, email with any questions or concerns you may have.

Student Spotlight: Nia Ward with the Strong Survivors Program

As a student, one of the most valuable experiences you can gain is real-life work experience that relates to your major and goals for the future. In some situations students can find ways to do that right on campus. The Strong Survivors program serves the students at SIUC and the community as a whole. Strong Survivors provides exercise programs for cancer survivors and caregivers to support their recovery.

Nia Ward
Photo of Nia Ward from

For Nia Ward, a senior at SIUC, working with Strong Survivors hits close to home. Nia volunteers as one of the rehabilitation exercise specialists for the program. Having had a family member pass away from cancer, Nia is aware of the ways in which it can attack someones spirit as well as their body, and how even the simplest forms of exercise can be combat that. It is because of this that Nia was even more inspired to get involved with Strong Survivors.

As a Kinesiology Major (Exercise Science with a focus of Pre-Occupational Therapy), the learning experience Nia gains through the Strong Survivors Program is invaluable. Nia is no stranger to volunteering. She has experience volunteering as a cheerleading coach, as well as volunteering on campus through the Saluki Volunteer Portal. The High School Nia attended also required 80 hours of community service, and even then Nia went above and beyond, logging over 200 hours of community service. Nia was able to answer some questions regarding her experience with Strong Survivors, and the benefits it has for the community.


Q: Tell me a little bit about the Strong Survivors program.

A:  So volunteers take a class and study different types of cancer and then when we get our client, we give them their paperwork, they fill it out basically they tell us about their struggles, what they want to work on. For example, I had a patient, she wanted to work on not falling over while putting on her pants. We worked on was things to strengthen her body so she would be able to do that.

Q: So, based on the client’s goals, the student volunteers come up with an exercise program that fits their needs?

A: Based on their goals, the medications they’re taking, the problems that they are going through, that’s how we come up with their plan. Like my patient right now has lymphedema so she can’t do a lot of stuff with her arms and she happens to have a herniated disk, so we made a program so that she can go into the water so that it’s easier for her on her body.


Q: Can students volunteer multiple semesters? How does that part work?

A: You can do it as long as you’re here, there isn’t a limit on how many semesters you can volunteer. There are even people who have graduated who don’t want to leave the program because it is community service based. We have Masters students and bachelors’ students that participate.


Q: What about the program do you think inspires students to get involved?

A: The way the clients feel at the end. We have this big party and people get awards for their achievements. It gives the patients this burst of energy, and makes them so much happier. In our paper work we have to record their energy levels, and by the end it is always higher than it was at the beginning, which is what we want.


Q: So what were some initial things that prompted you to get involved with the program? Was it strictly school based or did the volunteer idea compel you?

A: Well I love to volunteer, it just makes me happy and it’s fun for me. So that was one reason. But my grandmother, she passed away from cancer when I was younger. My family is very active, my grandfather was so pro exercise, my dad and both my uncles were college athletes, so they were all into exercise, so when she was going through her treatment, she wanted to just lay in bed all day, as lethargy is a side effect of the treatment. But we would make her get up and we would go outside and ride our bikes and get her walking, and I saw how it motivated her. I know that if she saw me here today, she would be so happy at what I was doing for other people because she was once in that position. So she was the biggest motivation for me to volunteer with the Strong Survivors Program.


Q: What are the effects that you feel this program has on the community?

A: I think the effects are positive. Because exercise can help a lot of things, like your emotions, and help when patients are going through the treatment process. Just being able to build their confidence is a great way to impact the clients.


Q: I saw that the program is not only for cancer survivors but also—

A: Caregivers! So they can support the patients. There are a lot of different steps to working out, or wanting to work out. There is the procrastination stage, the stage where you’re thinking about it, and when you get to the “okay let’s get active” stage, you need friends to keep you motivated through all the steps, and to have somebody with you to work out and go somewhere with you like “let’s go now.”

Q: Like an accountability buddy?

A: Exactly! An accountability buddy.


Q: It’s clear that the program affects the participants positively, but how do you feel the program affects the volunteers?

A: I feel like I have a different outlook, that’s why I wanted to keep coming back. I think it makes us better people, and puts our own struggles into perspective.


Q: How has volunteering affected your experience as an SIU student?

A: It has made me want to get more involved. I find myself implementing what I learn in Strong Survivors with my other activities. Like right now, I work in a daycare and when I’m with the kids I do some of the fun and goofy things we do in Strong Survivors to keep the kids active. Like if we can’t go outside and run of their energy, I implement some indoor physical activity that I learned from the program.


Interested in learning more about Strong Survivors? Check out the program’s website at

Q and A: Wright-Way Rescue

According to Shelter Animals Count, the national database, “approximately 6.5 million companion animals enter U.S. animal shelters nationwide every year.” In Southern Illinois several shelters help these pets find their forever homes. Wright-Way Rescue, in Murphysboro, is one of them. Wright-Way not only coordinates the re-homing of the pets put in their care, but provides medical attention for shelter animals. With the large amount of pets that go into shelters each year, it is essential to have people, behind the scenes, who dedicate their time and energy towards these animals

Katie Muldoon, of Maryland, is one of these people. Katie is the Chief of Staff at Wright-Way Rescue. From growing up in a house full of rescues, riding horses, and working in a vet’s office through college, Katie’s love and passion for animals has always been prevalent.

Q: How did your volunteer journey begin?

A: During college, grad school, and post-grad, I really cut my teeth in animal rescue. I am the Founder and Director of Mississippi Mutts. That’s how I originally connected with Wright-Way as they were our main partner rescue to send animals to. Wright-Way’s Executive Director, Christy Anderson, and I developed a great working relationship. I admired the lifesaving impact Wright-Way made for so many homeless animals and communities. So, when an opportunity presented itself, I was thrilled to join the team and be a part of the mission of this incredible organization.

Q: Tell me about the organization you work with.

A: Wright-Way Rescue is a “No-Kill” Organization, which means we do not euthanize unless warranted by inhumane suffering due to extreme illness, extreme injury, or severe aggression that prevents the animal from safely being handled. We are the largest No-Kill rescue in the mid-west, adopting out over 5,000 animals in 2019. We receive puppies and kittens from rescue partners all across rural America, including locally, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, and Kentucky.

Q: What are typical volunteer tasks at Wright-Way?

A:  Interacting with animals, we always have cats and dogs who would love socialization and extra attention. We also have tasks that ease the work load for our staff, like laundry and dishes. If you’re handy, there’s projects around the building we’d love help with. We also are currently hoping to increase the number of community events and adoption events we have in Southern Illinois, so we absolutely will need volunteer support to make those run smoothly. Expect to make a difference in the life of an animal. However you choose to contribute, your work here will directly impact an animal and support our mission to save more lives.

Expect to make a difference in the life of an animal.

Q: What about Wright-Way Rescue inspired you to get involved?

A: This organization is unique in its ability to intentionally accept difficult medical cases, often ones that would call for euthanasia at under-resourced shelters, and still be able to achieve the lifesaving numbers that we do. It’s really impressive how equipped we are to accept animals with contagious illness, orthopedic issues, or rare conditions, treat them, and offer them a second chance at life that most animals in their circumstance would never have.

Q: Could you tell me about a particularly memorable day at Wright-Way Rescue?

A: Every day here is full of feel-good moments, it’s easy to appreciate your work when you get to see the animals who are being saved. But, one day that was memorable and always will be was recently, the day of the car accident involving our transport van. It was overwhelming and really emotional to watch this community drop everything and show up for the animals. There were hundreds of people looking for our lost dogs and cats, and sending donations to help us get through the difficult time. As much support as we received from our Chicago network, this community here in Southern Illinois was so generous and quick-acting. It made a horrible day memorable for a very positive reason.

Q: What is one of the most rewarding aspects of working with your organization?

A: I love that we target communities who don’t have any resources for homeless animals, and we are able to provide that relief and hope for them. In rescue, it’s natural that we’re all here to help animals, of course, but pet homelessness is a community issue, and while it’s brought on by people, it’s also only solved through the dedication and compassion of incredible people who step up to do something about it. Getting to support and offer assistance to those amazing individuals, that’s what I love most about what Wright-Way does.


Wright-Way Rescue appreciates volunteers at their Southern Illinois location Mondays-Fridays from 10am-5pm.

Katie suggests wearing clothes you don’t mind getting some hair or dirt on. Close-toed shoes, comfortable clothes, and if you have long hair, bring a hair tie.

Thinking about volunteering with Wright-Way Rescue? Submit applications online:


“There is finally a light at the end of the tunnel- though it’s still a long tunnel to go- that our generation may get to witness a time when animals in the United States are not euthanized for lack of space or resources to care for them.”

Q and A: For Kids’ Sake

Ryan Edwards, from Springfield, IL, came to SIUC as a freshman. One of the requirements to maintain his scholarship was looking for volunteer opportunities and serving the local community. That was when Ryan got involved with For Kids’ Sake. He started out volunteering the day after that years spring Art Auction.  Afterwards, he was offered regular hours interning with For Kids’ Sake.  Ryan interned there all four years of college and, a month after graduating, was offered a full time positon. Ryan was able to sit down and answer questions regarding For Kids’ Sake, his involvement with the organization, and his experiences volunteering.


Q: What is a general overview of the For Kids’ Sake Organization?

A: The For Kids’ Sake organization has 6 organizations and schools in Bangladesh that service 550 orphans and 4,000 students. They provide orphans with everything: clothing, three meals a day, medical care, and clean drinking water, among other things. For the schools, the funding that For Kids’ Sake provides goes towards providing the best teachers. Because of this, the main school received best in its division (out of 500 schools!).

Volunteers helping custom frame artwork for the 20th annual Art Auction.

For Kids’ Sake has two large volunteer opportunities. The two main events are the Superhero 5k in the fall (there are 100+ volunteers involved the day of and the event prep leading up to this event) and the Art Auction every spring. The Art Auction coincides with SIU’s spring semester. The beginning prep work starts right around the beginning of the semester, and then the closing celebration is the last weekend of April (this year it will be Sunday, April 26). It lines right up with people helping from the beginning, and then wrapping things up right before finals. Outside of those two events, For Kids’ Sake has internships as well as general volunteer opportunities throughout the year.


Q: How was this organization started?

A: Sayed Dayemullah, who was an orphan in Bangladesh, grew up to be a spiritual leader. He would go around the country, and founded tons of schools and orphanages. A lot of the time, villages and cities would take on the schools built, and it would become that villages’ school. There were a handful he stayed involved in throughout his whole life. Before his passing, he asked his spiritual successor, Sheikh Din, “Will you promise to take care of my kids?” and Sheikh Din promised to do so. The way he kept that promise was founding For Kids’ Sake. So the organization is based on a personal promise and personal connection.


Q: What about For Kids’ Sake initially drew you in?

A: Our office is very relationship oriented, friendly, and welcoming. A lot of our interns, myself included, have said that the personal connection is what draws people in, and then after getting started, you become connected to something greater. You’re doing this selfless work and serving kids in need that, otherwise, wouldn’t be able to help themselves.



Q: Has volunteer work always been an interest of yours?

Volunteers at the Closing Celebration- this concludes the annual Art Auction at the end of each April.

A: Yes! I volunteered in high school and always found it rewarding. After I started volunteering at For Kids’ Sake, I went way above and beyond the hour requirement, which most of our interns do. My interest in nonprofit work evolved as a student, volunteering as an intern, and has grown from there.



Q: What do you feel are the most rewarding aspects of working with For Kids’ Sake?

A: One of my favorite things about working here is that our efforts, though they might seem small to Western perspective, go really far in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, fifty dollars is enough to support an orphan for an entire month. So with the Art Auction, it’s touching to see a local kid who is really proud of their artwork, and it sells for fifty dollars. Within that interaction, someone gets to take a kids’ artwork home, the kid feels empowered because they made a difference and get to see their artwork framed on a wall behind glass, and then the money goes towards children in need. The impact of For Kids’ Sake is for both the kids in Bangladesh and people locally, and making that connection is an inspiring part of working here.



Q: What is the best way for people to contact the organization in order to volunteer?

SIU volunteers at the annual For Kids’ Sake Superhero 5k.

A: For SIU Students, checking out our Galaxy page (Saluki Volunteer Portal) that we keep updated. In addition, we do the mass emails, so anyone that wants to be on that list can call and ask. People can reach out to me directly on our office line, and I’d be happy to inform them on what we have going on currently.


Q: Do you have any advice for first-time volunteers?

A: I think they should stick with it and try to build it into their schedule, particularly freshman. I know it can feel like there’s a lot of free time, going from high school to (college), only being in class a few hours a day. So it’s really tempting to spend all that time hanging out with friends or watching Netflix, but you’d be amazed at how a couple hours a week (volunteering) can not only really help a local project, but also change your perspective, give you new skillsets, and help you build relationships.


To get involved, go to or contact Ryan Edwards at


Service Learning Spotlight: Jody Paulson, AD 208

Professor Jody Paulson is the backbone of SIU Carbondale’s Art Education department. Her Intro to Art Education class is one of the courses that use service learning in the program; in AD 208, it’s primarily in the addition of the Saturday Young Artists program. However, it’s far from the only place service learning can be found in the Art Education department.Another class of Professor Paulson’s has partnered with the More Speech Citizen Artists’ Forum project, organized by the Art Institute of Chicago. This year’s topic is the first amendment; Paulson’s students are leading critiques on the submitted pieces of artwork.

The art room is golden with 4:00 PM sun, the walls plastered with artwork and exploding with color. It smells like paint and chalk and nutmeg—like every memory of art class I have from elementary school. Professor Paulson is even sunnier than her classroom; we spent over half of the interview running off on tangents, laughing. She’s delightfully passionate about her classes and the students in them.

How long have you been at SIU?  

2 years; she’s been the department head for Art Education for nearly that long and has taught courses in Art Educatuion through both Art & Design and Curriculum & Instruction. Everywhere she teaches, regardless of whether the classes are required by major or not, students show up to volunteer at her Saturday Young Artist workshops—again, and again, and again.

How did you first hear about service learning?  

Saturday Young Artist Workshop

“I don’t remember when I didn’t know about service learning,” she tells me; all of her children have had to log service hours throughout high school. Even if students’ service isn’t embedded in the class, “in the arts, you’re asked to do things as a community agent, as a representative; so much of what we’ve done [in the arts] has always been field experience or community based that it just naturally becomes a part of what the courses are, I think.” Ultimately, it’s too integral a part of the discipline to go unexplored.

What does service learning look like in your curriculum? How have you incorporated it? 

Ultimately, service learning renders the classroom a liminal space. A framework of learning occurs there, but the “most of the curriculum is focused around service experiences, even if it’s not Saturday Young Artists.” For example, “students are meeting at the library this week to find resources for Saturday Young Artist lesson plans. And then we have a representative from Neurorestorative coming in, to teach us more about protocols for working with clients with brain injuries, so then we’ll go there.”

Service learning is  hands-on. Professor Paulson starts protocol and lesson planning with the students early, and engages them with every aspect of the Saturday Young Artist program. The program is the core of their class. They also go out and do impromptu art, often in efforts to engage with them on campus, trying to initiate discussion of the arts in their community.

What do you think your students get out of their work? What do you get out of this work as a professor?  

“I do serve breakfast, at 8:30. Maybe that’s why my students keep coming back,” she says,  laughing. “I think they’ve already requested chocolate donuts for their first one.”

Donuts aside, “They do develop a really nice community. At the end of each workshop, they stay and talk; we call it teacher’s lounge. I would finally say, ‘we have to leave,’ and they would all go together and eat lunch someplace; I think it’s been beneficial for them in so many ways.”

What skills or knowledge are your students building through service learning? 

Shayla working with a young artist.

At this point in the interview, Shayla Heery enters the room and gives us a bright hello. Apparently, it’s the second time she’s been interviewed this week, since she’s spending so much time in the art room. She offers her insight, as an upperclassman in the Art Education program:

“We get more real life experience; it’s one thing to read something and be lectured on it; it’s another thing to actually apply it to what you’re doing—like, ‘oh, this is best practice, which you should be doing,’ but then actually being able to do it, you kind of find your own way of how it works, and I think you understand it better by applying it. It’s giving deeper meaning to what you’re reading or being lectured on or doing in a classroom setting; you have a deeper understanding.”

“We get more real life experience; it’s one thing to read something and be lectured on it; it’s another thing to actually apply it to what you’re doing—like, ‘oh, this is best practice,’ …but then actually being able to do it, you kind of find your own way of how it works, and I think you understand it better.”

What are the course outcomes for this class? What should your students know or be able to do by the end of the class? 

“Well, I think being able to think on your feet is a large part of it; how do you react to the unknown? You can write a lesson plan, and you can envision how it’s going to go, but you can’t predict. That ability to respond to new situations, things that there’s no way you could have even guessed what would happen—that’s not something that we can really recreate in the classroom. They have to hit the ground running.”

How has service learning impacted student engagement and connection to the course? 

“Students are coming back that aren’t required to. They come back and they’re not just like, ‘yeah it was okay,’ they don’t want to do anything but tell stories. We have to do something else today, and all they want to do is share and talk about it!”

Strong skill application abilities are the core of service learning; students learn to fulfill the defined state competencies, with high stress on professionalism, and strong emphasis on appropriate developmental curriculum choices for young students. “At first, they don’t understand those connections they’re making, but at the end of Saturday Young Artists, when one of the parents comes and says, ‘I would love to write you a recommendation, if you would like,’ and a lot of times it’s a professor on campus they’ve never had any interaction with. They’re making relationships and bridging that in the community as well; they don’t understand at the beginning.” It’s essentially networking. It’s connection that brings students back, over and over again.

Do you have a favorite anecdote about doing service learning with your students?  

Making masks at one of the workshops

One thing Shayla said stood out: “If you never made a mistake, you weren’t trying hard enough.” In a world of education that has been accused of fostering perfectionism and fear of failure, service-learning courses are a refreshing opportunity to engage, connect, and shamelessly learn from mistakes.

Some quotations have been edited for length and accuracy.

Q & A: START, Inc.

START, or Specialized Training for Adult Rehabilitation, is an organization based in Murphysboro, Illinois; they provide jobs, housing, and support to individuals with disabilities. Their campus is sprawling, integrated seamlessly into the framework of the town. 

Colleen Camarano is a case manager with START; she finds me halfway across the campus, laughing because it’s large enough that I got lost in an effort to find her office. She leads me through a warehouse full of workers, into a small, cozy office with a coffee pot and an overflowing desk. When we sit down to talk with mugs of coffee, her excitement is infectious.

In your own words, what’s your organization’s purpose?

“Basically, START’s mission is to provide vocational and social skills to individuals with disabilities.” START celebrated their 50th anniversary recently; they began as the Jackson Community Workshop, a small-scale access organization in someone’s church basement. From the beginning, they sought to answer the question of what adults with disabilities could move on to once they finished school. “We serve adults 18 and up; the only requirements are to have a developmental disability, which means onset before 22. Most of the folks here join us after high school.”

“There’s a place for everyone.”

How have you gotten these ideas out into the community?  

The core of START is social integration; everything they do is deeply entwined in a framework of community. Their workers have contracts with local businesses. Their leisure outings support local parks and other sites. Even their transportation is accessible because of an organized, cooperative effort with Jackson County. “Community integration is not just going out into the community once a week, but direct interaction with the community,” Colleen explains. For example, “some of our individuals go to the Liberty Theatre once a week, and give out free coffee. It’s little things like that, but it’s also things that take a little more initiative, like going to SIU and recruiting volunteers.”

Tell me about what this organization does? What resources do you make available to those you serve?

START provides access to work, class, and support to individuals with disabilities, with the ultimate goal of helping them integrate into their communities. “A lot of our individuals come for day services, which includes class time, work on social skills, activities of daily living, leisure outings, and community integration; they might work a hour or two once a week.” The other program is vocational; these individuals may work all day, but “most of them go to class in the morning and work in the afternoons, or the other way around.” Jobs include anything from contract work with Pen Aluminum, where workers are paid by the piece for boxes and palettes, to janitorial work for hourly pay that’s calculated specially for the individual’s work rate. 

“If we can make it available, we make it available.”

START also provides community integrated living arrangements, or residential homes, each with anywhere between two and four beds, and with a “focus on that realistic, living-on-your-own environment.” They have contracts with local transit systems to allow residents to move freely even without a driver’s license. 

They even have a new program called the group respite program, which provides part-time services such as class and community outings to individuals who are still waiting for funding. “There’s a place for everyone,” Colleen says firmly. “If we can make it available, we make it available.”

Tell me about what you do in your position within this organization?  

“The fancy word for it is a QIDP: Qualified Intellectual Disabilities Professional. It’s a fancy way to say I’m a case manager.” Each individual who works with START has a personalized plan of service; those plans are separated into priorities, strengths, personal barriers, and supports to help overcome those barriers for a variety of different life areas. “Everyone needs to have formal goals to work on, and they get to choose what they those goals are. It’s stuff catered to what they want to do, that will make them happy.”

Colleen goes on to explain, “I have a couple individuals who want to work on social skills and their own mental health; I have an individual whose goal is to journal, and check in with me when she’s upset. I think we all need to work on coping skills and problem solving—all of us!”

“My job is seeing people go have fun, and do things that are meaningful to them.

Tell me about your career path. How did you get involved with this organization? What led you here?

Colleen’s involvement with individuals with special needs goes all the way back to high school involvement with a sleep-away summer camp for kids with special needs. Continue reading “Q & A: START, Inc.”

Q & A: The Rainbow Cafe

The Rainbow Cafe is warm and colorful, tucked away at the Southern side of Carbondale, Illinois, where infrastructure meets and lapses into the woods of Shawnee National Forest. Outside the building, a rainbow flag flies beside the front door in a quiet, artsy storefront. My first impression is of an indie coffee shop—but it’s not actually a coffee shop. Instead, Rainbow Cafe is a youth center, and one of the only LGBTQ+ youth centers in Little Egypt.

Tara Bell, the Cafe’s board chair and community relations manager, greets me warmly; she’s contagiously energetic, bright and welcoming to a fault. We put on a pot of coffee in the Cafe kitchen, and sit down to drink it on warm, soft couches in a room with rainbow walls. The table across from us is piled full of resource flyers, covering everything from lists of local accepting churches to legal name change information. The Cafe exists to “provide a safe, welcoming, and supportive space” to LGBTQ+ youth, ages 13-19, across Southern Illinois, and it does just that: every Friday night, from 6:00 to 10:00 PM, youth gather there for free food, fun, and community.

“We always learn more from them than they do from us.”

Spaces that provide support and connection are incredibly important in any area, but especially so for students at the small, rural schools that characterize Southern Illinois. These students might not have any other LGBTQ+ friends in the entire student body—and there might not even be resources at school to ensure their fair treatment or safety.

Much of Rainbow Cafe’s work is based in schools, because much of the need for advocacy and community is in the education system; Tara’s experience with this began firsthand with her transgender son’s transition. “When he graduated from high school four years ago,” she explains, “there was no Gay-Straight Alliance in place.” Even as a member of the LGBTQ+ community herself, she struggled to fully understand or recognize what he was going through at a high school with no resources or community for people like him. That disconnect led her to get involved; “working with younger teenagers helped my relationship with my son, because I started to understand more of his experience.” She pauses to take a sip of her coffee. “You know, we always learn more from them than they do from us.” Continue reading “Q & A: The Rainbow Cafe”

Service Learning Spotlight: Dr. Bardhan, CMST 481

Dr. Nilanjana Bardhan is a professor in the Communication department at SIU, as well as the director of their graduate program.

Within the Communication department, which is known for their high potential for community engagement, Dr. Bardhan primarily teaches classes on Intercultural Communication and Public Relations. Many CMST classes involve service learning, but today, our focus is on her experience with CMST 481.

How long have you been at SIU?  

“Long enough to get free parking!”

Wait, they do that here? How long is that?

“22 years this year.” She’s been a professor here since 1998.

How did you first hear about service learning?  

“I didn’t start out thinking about it as service learning,” Dr. Bardhan explains. “It was what was being done in the curriculum when I got here.”

This is a common thread among long-time service-learning professors: for the majority I’ve spoken with, it’s simply the way things have always been. It’s the best way for their students to have a fulfilling, hands-on experience that they can carry with them through their careers.

What does service learning look like in your curriculum? How have you incorporated it?

A: “We have a class called PR Cases and Campaigns, it’s the capstone course for PR majors.” The class is structured like a firm; each semester, sections take on clients from the community—at least one nonprofit/community organization as a client every semester.

“We work with nonprofits, which are usually strapped for funds,” Dr. Bardhan explains; she gives St. Francis Animal Shelter and the American Heart Association of Southern Illinois as examples.

“Students take on that group or that organization as a client, and then they figure out their needs, from an awareness-raising stance. They get to know about the organization if they don’t already, and can go even beyond the class, so if they want to volunteer for them, they get engaged in that way. Organizations get the service from the students as they’re learning about how to do their work, and they get some input from the students in the form of the work that they do.”

What do you think your students get out of their work? What do you get out of this work as a professor?  

“It’s a mutually beneficial situation,” Dr. Bardhan says; she’s developed an extensive list of positive experiences her 22 years’ worth of students have had in CMST 481. “Students get materials for their portfolio, which is great when they’re gonna be applying for jobs. It’s useful to have worked with real organizations, rather than hypothetical ones, and actually developed plans and campaigns for real situations.”

But a leg up on resume building is only the tip of the iceberg. Ultimately, students gain experience with promotional and awareness-raising campaigns, as well as recruitment of donors and volunteers, and management of fundraising resources. Students in CMST 481 get to learn on the fly, doing exactly the job they’re getting a degree for.

And of course, there’s always “the satisfaction of working with a nonprofit they feel connected to,” as well as volunteer hours available to those who go above and beyond the class requirements. “They get course related benefits as well as an overall satisfaction of being able to give back to the community.”

So, what do you gain from your work with these classes?

“I’ve always been drawn to working for nonprofits; and I think by getting students connected with nonprofits through a learning format, through a class, it feels like everybody’s getting something good out of it. If I can be that person who can facilitate that and make that happen, it’s a rewarding experience.”

What skills or knowledge are your students building through service learning?

Ultimately, these students are building planning, strategy, and implementation skills. They learn to build an “oriented PR campaign, because that’s our department and area, for a real organization, with real needs and issues.”

The same reasons service learning classes are so interesting are also some of the reasons they’re so effective: “Instead of just learning abstract theories in class, students are actually applying it, and feeling like it’s something concrete and tangible.”

What are the course outcomes for this class? What should your students know or be able to do by the end of the class? 

“The main goal is to learn how to develop, and to a certain extent implement, a carefully planned-out and strategic public relations campaign for a client.” The class also tackles issues of learning to develop relationships with clients and organizations, as well as functioning in a professional work environment and fostering suitable communication skills.

Some quotations have been edited for length and accuracy.

Q & A: John A. Logan Museum

Nestled off the main road of Murphysboro, Illinois, the General John A. Logan Museum sits behind a white picket fence, among the other large old houses and even larger trees of the historical district. Out front, a sign reads, “He was made for battle, the fiercer the better. It seemed to suit his temper.” Crickets sing in the tiny pocket of prairie across from the museum’s main door, as the sun beats down on yet another sweltering southern Illinois morning.

Laura Varner, the curator, welcomes me warmly into her office at the top of a twisting staircase, and I’m immediately fascinated by the volume of interesting objects crowding the massive desk in the middle of the room. It’s covered in old documents, letters, and nameless tools, toys, and other objects. She apologizes for the mess, but I’m delighted; I’d be concerned to see a curator’s office look any other way.

Laura is the Curator of Collections for the General John A. Logan Museum, and she’s been there for sixteen years. In print, her job is to assess and care for incoming artifacts. When I ask what she does, in depth, she laughs. “Okay so,” she begins, and then pauses to shuffle her thoughts into order. “Assessment of incoming artifacts, maintaining the existing collection—mak[ing] sure everything’s housed as properly and safely as possible—” and the list goes on: “I also do research on different exhibits we have, and I do research on the artifacts; I help the director to put together the exhibits. I look for volunteers, this that and the other.” This, that, and the other includes upkeep in the main building; here, everyone does a bit, or more than a bit, of everything.

Southern Illinois has become a largely forgotten area in terms of civil war history; the Logan Museum seeks to remedy this. In Laura’s words, the organization exists “to celebrate the life of General John A. Logan and the men [from Southern Illinois] who sacrificed so much to preserve the union.” They’re a tiny organization, but a colorful and hardworking bunch who do what they do because they truly enjoy and believe in it. “Within that,” Laura continues, “we look at this area and the importance of this history in this area, because a lot of people go ‘oh, you know, there’s no battles fought here.’ But the draft had to be put in place during the civil war, and it didn’t have to be put in place here, because people volunteered. People here had no problem with slavery, and they didn’t see fighting a war over it; they did see preserving the union. But when they did go south and see slavery firsthand, people like Logan became defenders of equal rights.”

Logan’s narrative of growth from indifference to empathy and advocacy resonates, now more than ever. Laura goes on: “It’s our job to present this in a way that [helps] people understand the importance of where they live and the people that lived here before.”

The museum does just that; they provide research resources, touchstones, and more to people seeking more information about Logan, Murphysboro, and the Civil War soldiers from Southern Illinois. In particular, Laura is interested in uncovering the people behind the events; “history is stories,” she tells me, “not names and dates.” Continue reading “Q & A: John A. Logan Museum”