Top urban universities -- including Columbia and Penn -- are conceiving and implementing creative new initiatives to help their less-privileged neighbors jump-start their careers.
"We've got the resources. We've got the students interested in helping the community. We're building from that foundation," said Jack McGourty, an associate dean at Columbia's School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Thanks to McGourty and a team of five undergraduate Columbia students, out-of-work New Yorkers now have the opportunity to take professional classes and earn Ivy League certificates from Columbia.
Known as the Gateway Workforce Development Program, the initiative -- operated and carried out by McGourty and undergraduates -- teaches Web designing to a group of approximately 20 of New York's unemployed for a semester.
Last semester, the program saw its first students undertake and complete the course.
The final project for the Gateway Program's participants is a polished high-tech Web page for a local non-profit organization that otherwise could not afford one.
The non-profit recipient last semester was the West Side Inter-Agency Council for the Aging. After completion of the current course, a new Web site will go to Morningside Gardens, a middle-income housing development organization.
"It's the community helping the community," McGourty said.
Promiti Dutta, a junior at Columbia's engineering school, is the lead student instructor for the teaching of technical skills for the program.
"There's a real sense of accomplishment from this," Dutta said. "Many [participants] can't even use a computer mouse for the life of them [at the start of the program] ... but by the end, they're not only using the mouse, but complicated Web-design software."
At Penn, the newest community outreach initiative still in the works is a comprehensive job-referral and training hub to be located in West Philadelphia. Called the Skills Development Program, it will be overseen by the West Philadelphia Partnership, an umbrella service organization coordinated in part by Penn.
The center, whose location has yet to be determined, will assess employment needs in the Philadelphia area, refer those interested to such sites and provide training to suit the demands of the job. Organizers hope to have it up and running next fall.
"It's a unique opportunity to merge the needs of employers with the needs of the people in the community," said Ira Harkavy, director of the Center for Community Partnerships at Penn -- which is playing a key role in implementing the program.
"Plus, there's a rainbow at the end [for participants] -- a real job or a better job," he said.
Both the Skills Development Program and the Gateway Workforce Development Program are gaining steam from the universities' undergraduate programs and coursework.
At Columbia, the course taught to New York's unemployed was modeled after a course requirement for first-year engineering students called "Design Fundamentals Through Advanced Computer Technologies." The class involves students making technical designs for non-profits.
According to McGourty, the Gateway Workforce Development Program is "an opportunity to apply our model of education in another way."
At Penn, students enrolled in academically based community service classes could play a role in implementing the Skills Development Program.
Penn offers approximately 60 academically based community service courses per year. According to Cory Bowman, the associate director of the CCP, students enrolled in these classes will have the opportunity to apply their knowledge to real-world projects.
"They identify problems, identify solutions and identify how to bring solutions about," Bowman said.
He anticipates that student coursework will have a huge impact on the progress of the Skills Development Program.
University administrators in both Philadelphia and New York stress that community development is a necessity for urban schools.
"It's one thing to be on campus. It's another to have close interactions. [A university has] an obligation to be a good partner in the community it lives in," McGourty said.
Harkavy agreed, adding that the relationship between the school and the city is symbiotic.
"Our future at Penn is tied to the condition of West Philadelphia. ... We benefit from positive relations as our futures are intertwined."
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