CBLI celebrates learning through service

Projects ranging from an artistic collaboration with prisoners to research on clean water were among the educational partnerships between Princeton students and local nonprofit groups highlighted at an April 23 celebration hosted by the Community-Based Learning Initiative .

The sixth annual Community-University Luncheon, held at the Arts Council of Princeton, brought Princeton students, faculty and staff members together with their community partners to honor the work of CBLI. The initiative, which began at Princeton in 1997, incorporates community projects into courses, enabling students to produce academic work that addresses pressing political and social issues.

The luncheon featured presentations on four CBLI senior thesis projects, as well as an effort led by sociologist Patricia Fernandez-Kelly that helped prisoners in Trenton produce a literary and artistic magazine. Poems, essays and images from the magazine, "Inside Out," were displayed on the Arts Council's walls.

"It is the most stimulating, significant and moving educational event of the year for me to hear the stories of the students, faculty members and community partners who work together and do phenomenally sophisticated work," said Hank Dobin, associate dean of the college and director of CBLI.

Fernandez-Kelly and four students from her CBLI course, "Urban Sociology: The City and Social Change in the Americas," discussed their collaboration with Hispanic Americans for Progress, a group formed by inmates at the state prison in Trenton to deter young people in poor urban settings from crime.

Fernandez-Kelly said CBLI "is about the students learning something from real people in the world. I always see those participants in the Community-Based Learning Initiative as pro-bono consultants -- great talent that is put into circulation for the benefit of a small organization."

One of her students, sophomore Catherine Cambria, contrasted working in the prison with life on the Princeton campus. "You can't forget there's a real world out there and that we have these opportunities and all of this privilege. What's great about this program is it makes you realize we all have a social responsibility and that privilege comes at a price, that we all have to give back."

Senior Alexis Burakoff, a Woodrow Wilson School major, focused her senior thesis on the effects of poverty on self-image, interviewing residents of low-income areas of Trenton in collaboration with the Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton. Burakoff said she relished the opportunity to do a community-based thesis.

"While my friends were in Firestone in their carrels with books up to their ears, I was in Trenton every day talking to people ... and spending time in an organization that I care about so much," she said.

Other students whose CBLI-sponsored theses were featured in the program included Robin Williams, a Woodrow Wilson School major who worked with the national Drug Policy Alliance to research the history of legislation on syringe access and successful strategies to prevent drug use. History major Elisa Minoff wrote her thesis on community development after conducting a neighborhood history research project with the Capital South Neighborhood Preservation Program in Trenton.

Stephanie Tatham, a politics major, focused her thesis on the legal steps New Jersey municipalities can take to protect their well water from pollution. Tatham's thesis adviser was George Hawkins, a member of Princeton's class of 1983 and executive director of the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association, a Pennington-based environmental group. Hawkins teaches a CBLI course, "Topics in Environmental Studies: Environmental Law, Community Action and Moot Court."

"I've watched CBLI as a program grow and become a stronger and bigger part of this University, which I think is a spectacular step," Hawkins said.

Noting the University's informal motto of "Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations," Hawkins added, "I wish this was here when I was a student. I really think this is an incredibly powerful and important aspect of this University."

Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601