From the August 2021 Desktop News | For 11 years, a select group of students at The University of Alabama have spent their summers immersing themselves in the underserved communities of rural Walker County. As part of New College’s Walker County Civic Engagement Internship Program, these students live and work in and around Jasper, Alabama, working directly with the Walker County Community Foundation, serving as interns for local nonprofit organizations, and gaining invaluable lessons in community development and civic engagement.
In partnership with the David Mathews Center for Civic Life’s Jean O’Connor-Snyder Internship Program and the Walker Area Community Foundation, four to five students are chosen each year to participate in the program after an intensive application process.
“We want to find people who understand that a community that needs help isn’t helpless,” New College Associate Professor, and program director, John Miller said. “We want to bring in someone who has a fresh insight but is also committed to the idea of being a partner in community development.”
Miller draws on Asset-Based Community Development practices, which students learn on weekend training retreats the spring semester before they begin their internship.
“It is premised on the idea that communities know best what they need,” Miller said. “The best thing that someone active in a community can do, someone trying to understand it and help it develop, is to go into that the community, figure out what they’re good at, and leverage those things to help the community face their challenges.”
Though the interns all learn the same basic framework of community development, their experiences putting it into practice are unique, as the opportunities vary as the need in the area does.
However, they all write about their experiences through blog posts for the Mathews Center and pen one longer piece of Solutions Journalism. For this, they identify problems in the community and resources that already exist in the community that can address the problem.
Miller said these partnerships with the Mathews Center and the Walker Area Community Foundation make Walker County a great place for the program, as the students come to understand the conceptual components of community from the former and the practical components from the latter. Together, they leave a lasting impression on the students.
“They have a new understanding of what it means to be in a community and to participate in it,” Miller said. “They tell us it’s a life-changing experience.”