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Civil Lessons

When Joi Rae ’11 fi rst came to Barnard she knew she wanted to pursue a political science major. Since becoming involved with Civic Engagement House, taking classes with eight other Barnard sophomores around issues of public service, and living together in an activist community in Cathedral Gardens, Rae has fine-tuned her focus. “After I came into the [Civic Engagement] program, I realized that I wanted to do a concentration in human rights for my major,” she says. So Rae has set off on a series of courses dealing with human rights within the political realm.

Likewise, Rachel Gerson ’08, now a paralegal case handler for the New York Legal Assistance Group, was a psychology major when she became involved with Civic Engagement House in 2005, then at Plimpton Hall. “The program made me realize that there are so many things I could do with a psych degree aside from being a therapist,” she says. “Now I’m interested in mental-health issues from a legal perspective.” She plans to apply to law school in the fall.

A nonacademic living arrangement, which combines non-credit bearing seminars, shared housing, and independent community-based work, and now entering its fifth year, Civic Engagement House is designed to show sophomores with an interest in public service how their campus activism can fuse with academic and career pursuits. “We picked the sophomore year specifically,” says Will Simpkins, program director of community and diversity initiatives with the Office of Career Development and the New York City Civic Engagement Program. “In the first year, the students are focused on getting acquainted with Barnard; in the junior year they’re new members of their majors; in the senior year they’re writing their theses, but the sophomores don’t yet have a small community.”

The program begins in the fall with weekly seminars led by Simpkins. Along with lessons in community organizing, Simpkins invites community leaders and public service professionals, many of them Barnard alumnae, to speak to the students. “We feel like we’re activists now, but these women are still doing it” says Rae. “They haven’t stopped since college.” Toward the end of the first semester the students write position papers on a topic that matches their public-service interest. When the next semester rolls around, the participants find internships in New York City. They continue meeting as a group and privately with Simpkins to discuss how their internship is progressing.

Marissa Jeffery ’11, for example, is interested in both women’s studies and the environment. She landed an internship with the Women’s Environment & Development Organization, a non-governmental group working to empower women as decision-makers who will further goals of social and gender justice as well as a healthy planet. “Women around the world are the caretakers of the environment, they’re the ones who fetch the water and so on; they suffer the most when these resources aren’t cared for,” Jeffery explains.

Her classmate Rae did an internship with organizers of the Left Forum, an annual conference of progressive thinkers that takes place in New York City each spring. Likewise Tiara Miles ’11 is the site director for Barnard’s Let’s Get Ready, an SAT preparation program for disadvantaged high school students. In addition to their internships, the students create a grassroots project that involves other Barnard students to give them a taste of community organizing. Some students participate in charity events and enlist their classmates to take part. Others focus on an issue in New York City and petition city council members. Throughout the program, they live together in Cathedral Gardens, the housing suites farthest from campus, further fostering the sense of an activist community. “It’s not just something you do, but you also live civic engagement,” says Miles.

-by Ilana Polyak, illustration by Stine Westergaard