Community development students gain practical experience through new program

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Scholarship, Sustainability and Civic Engagement Program, or SSCEP, is in its pilot year, and so far, it's off to a great start.

In 2014, a group of undergraduate students and faculty in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences developed a plan to get students working in community- and sustainability-related fields long before they graduate.

They designed a three-semester-long program that gives students hands-on, real-world experience: a three-credit class in the spring, a one-credit internship in the summer and a three-credit class in the fall.

"It's sort of like an internship on steroids," said Timothy Kelsey, professor of agricultural economics and SSCEP program director. "We think this is a really important step."

One of the main goals of the Scholarship, Sustainability and Civic Engagement Program is to give students professional experience in applying the community-development, civic-engagement and sustainability skills and knowledge they've learned in classes, working closely with local professionals. In addition, SSCEP helps community organizations solve complex local challenges.

"Community leaders often are balancing multiple responsibilities, so they really appreciate having someone who can focus on a project and move it along," Kelsey said. "In addition, they like students' energy and enthusiasm."

Throughout the spring semester, student teams of two or three classmates work with partners in their assigned community to select a sustainability project and conduct preliminary research. The teams meet with a Penn State faculty member to plan the details of the proposed project.  

During the summer, the students work on the projects with the local partners and regularly share with their fellow students in the other communities what they're doing and learning. During the fall semester, students conduct any required follow-up work and reflect on what they learned from their experiences. In addition, they mentor the students who will be going to that same community the following summer.

Duncan Ackerman, a junior Community, Environment, and Development major from Gibsonia, selected Lock Haven as a community with which he wanted to work. He is part of a three-student team whose goal is to improve tourism and the local economy of the northcentral Pennsylvania borough.

"We hope to improve signage in the town, which will direct tourists to Lock Haven's various attractions," he said. "We also plan to build a floating dock near the business district, which will attract boaters to stop and visit Lock Haven's restaurants and stores."

This summer, Ackerman will stay in State College and commute to Lock Haven to execute these goals. He plans to work about 20 hours a week on the project.

"I'm really looking forward to the project. I'll learn practical skills about community building that will help me in the future," he said.

Another student participating in the program is Alexandra Sorce, a junior Community, Environment, and Development major from Shaler. She was assigned to McKees Rocks, an urban community west of Pittsburgh. She will work with the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation to strategize efforts for better food access.

"McKees Rocks is a food desert," Sorce said. "Citizens do not have transportation to grocery stores because 40 percent of the population does not own a vehicle, and there are no grocery stores within walking distance."

She and her partner in the project hope to connect local charities, such as the YMCA and churches, to better coordinate grocery donations.

"We also hope to use methods like cooking classes and street demonstrations to educate the population about lifestyle changes they can make to improve their diet and overall health," she said.

Both students agree that their experience with SSCEP has been positive and are excited to see their projects develop over time.

"I feel like this program has the potential to become the most comprehensive internship program in the entire University," Ackerman said.

"It's an internship experience tailored for students interested in making a positive impact," Sorce added. "With project placements in urban and rural areas, there's something in it for everyone."

For more information about the Scholarship, Sustainability and Civic Engagement Program, visit the SSCEP website, or contact Timothy Kelsey at 814-865-9542 or at twk2@psu.edu. Read more about the Community, Environment, and Development major.