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  February 5, 2001

Students Take Plunge Into Urban Life

"The experience changed my life," says Carrie Malcolm, who recently spent a week in Bridgeport's inner city.

The UConn freshman from Middlefield was one of eight students who took the Urban Plunge - a week-long intensive program that provides students with an opportunity to experience inner-city life. "You learn a lot," Malcolm says, "not book learning, but about life and the way other people live."

The program, in its fourth year, is offered during winter and spring break through the Center for Community Outreach and St. Thomas Aquinas Center. Students either go to Bridgeport, Conn., or Brooklyn, N.Y., during winter break or Hartford or Boston during spring break. Bridgeport was the site of the recent "plunge."

"The program exposes students to the problems facing people in urban environments," says Ryan Griswold, assistant coordinator of community outreach. There are three components of the program: practical service; education; and reflection.

During the semester before Urban Plunge takes place, participants meet once a week to talk about the agencies they'll be going to and discuss some of the issues. They also read newspaper articles to begin thinking about the issues.

Every day during the week of the plunge, the students are involved with adults and children in projects that give them experience with the problems and issues faced by the people of the city.

The agenda changes on a daily basis. "We try not to focus on any one population, because we want students to be exposed to different issues," Griswold says. Projects include preparing and serving meals in a soup kitchen, tutoring elementary school children, working at a home for people with HIV, or helping clean up a local park.

Malcolm says her favorite part of the program was working at a day-care facility in a high school, where teen mothers bring their children while they attend classes. She talked to the parents and played with the babies. "One girl went to school during the day and worked an eight-hour shift at night and did her homework," she says. "I can't imagine doing that in high school, along with the responsibility of a baby."

Participants also spend time with a variety of people whose lives and work address the struggles of a contemporary urban environment. They visit with people including agency coordinators, care givers, project directors, school administrators and probation officers who can help them better understand the systemic causes of the problems they encounter during the practical service.

Each day participants get together and reflect on the day's events. "This is a time for them to examine and explore their feelings - whether of anger, prejudice, fear or joy. It can be very moving," Griswold says.

"This is a very important component of the program, because this is where the real change happens. It helps the participant through a stage of personal development and can change any preconceived ideas that a student may have."

Erin St. Onge, who participated in the program in 1998 as an undergraduate, was recently a facilitator in Bridgeport. She says, "During reflection, people get very emotional. The good part is that it propels a lot of people into action. They say, 'Now that I've seen all this, I really can't ignore it.'"

Natalie Chavez, a sophomore, majoring in physiology and neurobiology, says that although it was upsetting to see the poverty, she was inspired by how many people are willing to help. Chavez plans to be a family doctor and work in an urban environment.

Malcolm, who plans to study human development and family relations, says the experience has inspired her to do an internship this semester with the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) office on issues of hunger and homelessness: "I wouldn't have signed up for that if I hadn't done Urban Plunge."

St. Onge says the program helps students gain an understanding of the complexity of poverty. "It really stresses to students that, while it is great to volunteer at a soup kitchen, that in itself is not going to solve any of the greater problems. Certain people are raised in poverty; there are barriers put in front of them and certain factors within the community, such as drugs and crime. All these things coming together provide a greater understanding of why the cycle keeps going on and on."

Sherry Fisher