Student Civic Leaders address national issues at a local level
A dozen Connecticut College students delayed the start of their summer vacations to participate in the summer Civic Leaders program at Conn College from May 18 to June 29, with some work continuing through the summer and the effects of their efforts reverberating long after.
The 12 rising sophomores and juniors each received a $2,000 stipend and housing and food on campus. They were assigned in pairs to one of six partner organizations in New London to address, at a local level, nationwide social issues such as education, employment, health, homelessness and racism.
The competitive program, in its fourth year, is a partnership between the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut and various offices at Conn, including the Office of the Dean of the College and the Holleran Center for Community Action.
“During the year, many Connecticut College students work and volunteer in New London. But this program is different: The students are able to work in organizations without distraction—they don’t have to try to fit time in around their classes, jobs, athletics or other campus activities,” Assistant Dean of the College for Connections Libby Friedman said.
Rebecca McCue, director of community engagement and Holleran Center operations, explained that the students completed an intensive two-day orientation on campus before starting their six-week internships. They learned about New London’s past and present and engaged in a downtown scavenger hunt to become familiar with the sites. They also learned about principles of ethical and equity-minded community engagement, dialogue skills, professional etiquette, team building, community building, and team and personal goal setting.
Students met for a weekly seminar with Sociology Professor Ronald Flores, faculty director of the Holleran Center, who taught them the difference between a civic leader and a servant leader, theories of social change, ethics of community engagement and more.
In their final presentations on June 29, students mentioned assigned readings such as The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism by Robert Coles, and Joyce Epstein’s Overlapping Spheres of Influence model, a theoretical framework that describes the need for connectivity among family, school and community.
The six partner internship sites, all based in New London, were Alliance for Living, Hearing Youth Voices, Horizons Beyond High School, New London Youth Affairs, Homeless Hospitality Center and The Samaritan House.
Alliance for Living
Apollo Suffi ’26 from Schaumburg, Illinois, and Alek Sinon ’26 from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, worked with Alliance for Living, which aims to be a leader in ending HIV, homelessness and the overdose epidemic through an evidence-based, client-centered care focus.
Suffi and Sinon worked on essential daily operation tasks such as stocking the pantry, placing food and supply orders, condensing case files, data entry and filing. They also organized a PRIDE-themed community meal held June 28. Their largest project was updating the agency video—they wrote the script and produced, filmed, directed and edited the video, which will be posted on AFL’s YouTube channel.
Sinon said active listening, understanding and humility were at the heart of their work.
“Being in a seemingly more privileged position than someone else does not equate to knowing what’s best for them,” she said. “Nor does it invite you to tell someone what to do to solve their problem. We saw how this manifested into case managers’ work as well, as they always gave the client the power to drive the conversation with what they need, rather than telling them what they need.”
Suffi said he was heartened to meet other queer people through his work with AFL and, through them, he could see his future for the first time.
“Growing up queer in a world that hates me is really hard. Seldom did I see people like me growing up, and even rarer did I see them become adults,” he said. “My takeaway was how crucial empathy can be. It can be the difference between a good day or a bad day, and it can be the difference between getting help or suffering alone.”
Hearing Youth Voices
Abby Dawson ’25 from East Providence, Rhode Island, and Melanie Rollins ’25 from Goodyear, Arizona, worked with Hearing Youth Voices, designed to develop students of color into skilled leaders able to create and run issue-based campaigns. The organization was created by and is for Black and brown students, who are statistically more likely to be affected by police violence in their schools. Their ultimate goal is to stop the school-to-prison pipeline in its tracks.
Rollins said, “We learned about different kinds of leadership. The model of leadership that stuck out to us the most was the idea of a servant leader, who listens first and acts later. We also got to learn more about the intersection of education and racial and economic inequality, and we learned how to create and foster community spaces.”
Dawson and Rollins developed skills in collaborating, organizing, researching and lobbying while working with many nonprofit organizations in Connecticut, including the Connecticut Black and Brown Student Union.
“We learned that organizing is hard and is a skill that takes much practice. We applied these principles to the movement that occurred at Conn a couple months ago to assess what went well and what could have been improved in that movement,” Dawson said.
One campaign the duo worked on was Care Not Cops, which demands true safety for students in schools and prioritizes using trained wellness workers such as therapists and other psychological professionals to deescalate situations in schools instead of using the potentially traumatizing force of the police.
They attended the Connecticut House of Representatives’ last legislative session on June 7 in Hartford to lobby for SB1, An Act Concerning Transparency in Education, which ultimately passed. The bill in part redefines the SRO role to include school psychologists, social workers, therapists and other types of wellness workers.
Horizons Beyond High School
Wilson Hernandez ’26 from New York, New York, and Bella Castellanos Palacios ’25 from Santa Rosa, California, spent six weeks with Horizons Beyond High School, working with 11 BIPOC New London High School students to develop a program that ran the last week of June and the first week of July to help them navigate their options after graduating high school.
They reached out to different organizations, professors and community members in New London for their assistance with creating workshops. Horizons Beyond High School is a part of the Crafting Democratic Futures grant, co-led by Professor Nakia Hamlett and Professor Jefferson Singer to partner Connecticut College and New London community members to collect and communicate narratives about race.
Through the workshops, Hernandez and Castellanos Palacios taught the 11 students crucial life skills including financial planning and budgeting, executive functioning skills, information about Connecticut College and other colleges in New London, and how to navigate the job search process as people of color.
“The education system fails BIPOC students and doesn’t fully prepare them for what’s to come,” Hernandez said. “It shouldn’t have to take a grant to be able to give these students an opportunity to succeed in life. …This is more than a community issue. This is a United States systemic issue.”
Castellanos Palacios agreed and added, “Although we may not be able to tackle this social issue on a large, national scale, our goal was to make some sort of difference for these 11 New London High School students and in the future expand this program and to fund it so that more students can partake in it.”
New London Youth Affairs
Leila Merhi ’25 from Holmdel, New Jersey, and Sarah Goodman Duffy ’26 from Annapolis, Maryland, worked with New London Youth Affairs, a youth service bureau that promotes positive outcomes for children, youth and families by supporting a wide range of comprehensive services and collaboration. Their overall goal is to fill in gaps being missed in schools.
Merhi and Goodman Duffy mainly worked with the Connecticut Youth Employment program, which provides job training and opportunities for New London County youth aged 14 to 24 through local job placements and workshops that address topics like resume writing, mental health and education. They also created a calendar for the Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) campaign, informational resources for parents and educators, a resume writing workshop and a mental health workshop.
Merhi said conducting interviews for the youth employment program was the most rewarding part of the internship “because we were able to connect with youth in the community and hear their interests and needs to try and match them with an ideal job. …Overall, these students were so enthusiastic about having a summer job and getting involved in their community.”
Goodman Duffy said, “Something I want to explore throughout my education at Conn and beyond is how communities can work to fill in the gaps that schools aren’t filling. It’s something I learned a lot about working with New London Youth Affairs and in our seminar with Professor Flores.”
Homeless Hospitality Center
Kevin Lieue ’26 from Bellevue, Washington, and Danisha Then ’25 from the Bronx, New York, worked with the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, which seeks to provide a place for adults facing homelessness to feel safe and welcomed and aims to be a bridge to permanent housing.
Lieue and Then learned the difference between nursing homes and residential care homes (RCHs), where residents have a lease and can come and go as they please, host visitors and more. To address the lack of information they discovered on RCHs, Lieue and Then assembled a comprehensive guidebook. They also examined whether more RCHs are an viable and implementable way to ease homelessness in New London, and determined they are.
They met with staff at Leeway in New Haven, the state’s only HIV/AIDS-centered RCH; toured Sheltering Arms, a large RCH in Norwich with an adult day center; spoke with staff at New London sober living home Recovery 12 Solutions to discuss starting an RCH there; and met with Matt Barrett, the president and CEO of Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities. Their work culminated in presenting their guidebook to New London’s Social Services Director Jeanne Milstein and the Homeless Hospitality Center board.
Then said, “My favorite strategy that I always use in any type of setting is listening. Listening requires a lot of patience, and I’ve grown to gain enough of that to be able to listen for long periods of time. This was very helpful during our meetings, which also allowed me to understand and contain more knowledge than I did before.”
“Homelessness is a national problem, but we worked more so on a regional level,” Lieue said, adding, “I’ve never been homeless, and that’s my privilege. I haven’t ever had to worry about where my next meal comes from, and where I am to sleep at night. So this compelled me to work harder to try to solve this problem in the best way I can for those less fortunate than myself.”
The Samaritan House
Shantaal Lovera ’25 from Manhattan, New York, and Ashley Perez Diaz ’25 from New Haven, Connecticut, worked with The Samaritan House, whose mission is to improve community health by providing hands-on demonstrations and dialogues between the New London community and healthcare professionals through workshops and resources and addressing health literacy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 90% of Americans have limited health literacy skills. Health literacy is the ability to obtain, read, understand and use healthcare information in order to make appropriate health care decisions and follow instructions for treatment.
Lovera and Perez Diaz were a great match for the health literacy program in New London, where 30% of the population primarily speaks Spanish. Both are daughters of Hispanic immigrants and have served as translators between their parents and doctors on numerous occasions.
They created marketing materials such as flyers and social media posts to promote equity among different populations. Their primary goal was to plan and promote community listening sessions to be hosted by The Samaritan House later this year. Participants will be asked about their health care experiences in New London, and their responses will be used to create a health equity program explicitly geared toward the issues most prevalent in the area.
Perez Diaz said, “We made a deliberate effort to listen, learn and uplift marginalized voices in the New London community. We approached our work with humility and acknowledged that community members are the experts in their own experiences. We also stressed the significance of their input in shaping the future approaches and mission of The Samaritan House as it is still evolving as an organization.”
Added Lovera, “We were able to see how the New London community is affected by similar disparities that we ourselves see in our hometowns, which in turn made us feel more connected to the community and want to advocate for it the same way that we would our own.”