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From theory to practice: Stevenson Center Fellows use skills to help local organizations

Zoom meeting screenshot

Final class meeting of POL/SOC 477 Community Project Design and Management in spring 2020.

Students become Stevenson Center Fellows because they value service: they want their graduate education to benefit others as much as themselves. One important opportunity to make that connection occurs each spring through POL/SOC 477 Community Project Design and Management. Under the guidance of sociology professor Dr. Frank Beck, Fellows worked in two groups in 2020 to assist the School Street Food Pantry and Autism McLean.

“We knew that the Stevenson Center does quality work.”—Kerri Calvert

Kerri Calvert, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and coordinator of planning and well-being initiatives at Illinois State, has been a board member of the School Street Food Pantry since its inception. She explained, “We knew that the Stevenson Center does quality work, and so we knew that we wouldn’t have to hold their hand and they’d produce quality research.”

The School Street Food Pantry, whose mission is help students dealing with food insecurity, wanted to use the information to better serve its demographic. Stevenson Center Fellow in political science Tobi Oladejo explained the need for data for continuous improvement: “They were trying to see exactly how their resources were being used. Is there anything they could do better to serve the community better?” The report for the School Street Food Pantry provided that needed context to inform the pantry’s next steps.

For those Fellows working with Autism McLean, an organization dedicated to promoting awareness of and supporting those with autism and their families, the research project presented unique opportunities and sensitive obstacles. “A few of the challenges included learning to understand what autism is and the complexities of it, as well as the nuances…of those who struggle with autism their entire life,” noted Tessa Lance, a Stevenson Center Fellow in political science. “So, learning that was huge, but it was extremely beneficial because it challenged our preconceived notions of what autism is.” The Fellows’ report focused specifically on housing for adults with ASD, or autism spectrum disorder. Those findings helped inform a recent discussion with Illinois Housing Development Authority representatives about the scarcity of special needs housing in our community and the resulting threats.

While applied research can be inherently challenging, the sudden presence of COVID-19 created new obstacles for the two teams. Without the possibility of field study and focus groups, Fellows adapted their methods and shifted the project scope. The end result was not what anyone expected at the beginning, which yielded new lessons.

Oladejo explained: “I learned that listening really matters. Dialogue really matters. Reaching that level of providing good services to communities can only happen through good studying of the community.  . . .  How can we be better and serve our communities better?”

Grayson Bourke, also a Stevenson Fellow in political science, agrees. He added that this project affected him personally. “I learned a lot about autism, and this project put in my mind the intersection of housing and cognitive disabilities. That intersection was what we discussed in class every day. That intersection is extremely important to me…barriers can multiply and cause a lot of burden,” he reflected. 

All three Fellows are now completing 11 months of professional practice. Oladejo is supporting the university’s efforts to launch its startup incubator and innovation hub. Lance is focused on fund development for Boston Area Gleaners, which combats food insecurity. Bourke’s role includes assessment, outreach, and marketing for the East Bluff Community Center in Peoria.

The Stevenson Center welcomes AmeriCorps alums, returned Peace Corps volunteers, and those with similar experiences to its interdisciplinary graduate programs. Master’s degrees with generous financial support are available in anthropology, applied economics, kinesiology and recreation, political science, and sociology. Want to learn more about becoming OR hosting a Stevenson Center Fellow? Contact us at StevensonCenter@IllinoisState.edu or (309) 439-7090.

Dani Park is the Stevenson Center’s public relations graduate assistant.