For 25 years, USC’s Joint Educational Project has worked to connect students’ academic life to the world outside the gates.
Staff and students of USC’s “hidden treasure.”
Photo by Irene Fertik
MARTIN GALINDO, PRINCIPAL of Vermont Avenue Elementary School, experiences déjà vu every time he sees USC’s Joint Educational Project students working with his Vermont Avenue kids.
That’s because Galindo remembers when he was one of those JEP students, venturing into a neighborhood school to mentor a child or teach a mini-course. He loved working in the schools and signed up for JEP courses for several semesters.
“JEP was a wonderful experience for me,” says Galindo, who graduated from USC in 1979 and went on to graduate school and a career in education. “I had the idea that I wanted to get involved with education, but I enjoyed working in the classroom so much that it totally sealed my decision.”
JEP, ONE OF THE OLDEST service-learning programs in the nation, celebrated its 25th anniversary in April.
Based in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, it is designed to link students’ academic learning with experience in the urban community around the university. Each year, JEP places 1,500 students – drawn from some 45 courses spanning the social sciences, humanities and natural sciences, and occasionally from the professional schools – in the neighborhood as mentors, mini-course instructors, translators and assistants to teachers and other professionals.
In addition, about 18 students work as program assistants, coordinating with faculty members to help JEP students make the intellectual connections between their volunteer work and the concepts studied in their classes. Since its inception, close to 40,000 USC students have participated in JEP, assisting nearly a quarter-million children.
The program was the brainchild of the late Barbara Seaver Gardner, known for her creative ideas and tireless advocacy for the community. She had come to USC after working for the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II.
“Barbara saw that USC had all these energetic young students, and they were supposed to be learning about the world,” says current JEP director Dick Cone. “Meanwhile, there was this world across the street that really needed their help.”
THE PROGRAM STARTED on a small scale, initially involving a half-dozen schools in the neighborhood surrounding the University Park Campus. At first, it was a conventional program that placed volunteers as tutors and teacher’s aides, but it soon began offering USC students as teachers of mini-courses in a wide range of subjects, including creative writing, Spanish, business, math, dental hygiene and anthropology.
“Originally we were naive,” Cone says. “We thought that students would naturally make connections between their course work and the community.” Now the JEP program assistants work with faculty members to develop “academic questions” to call students’ attention to issues and theories to consider during their JEP assignment.
Geography professor Roderick C. Mc-Kenzie, one of the first faculty members to incorporate JEP into his classes, supported the idea of community service though he was initially skeptical about allowing students to do it for academic credit.
“I realized these students needed this kind of exposure,” he says, noting that in those days as well as today, many USC students hailed from the suburbs and were not familiar with the neighborhood. “It’s a chance for them to see that young people in this community are just as starved for an edu-cation as they were at that age.”
Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, an assistant pro-fessor of sociology who also uses JEP in some of her courses, finds the program’s strength is in its flexibility. “It can be built into any curriculum if a professor is willing to take time to look for parallels,” she says, calling JEP “one of USC’s hidden treasures.
“It allows USC to capitalize on its geographical location and provides an edge to which few universities can lay claim.”