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Cobey Fund helps students connect classroom and community


Patricia Parker believes what happens in the classroom shouldn’t stay in the classroom.Parker, associate professor of communication studies at Carolina, believes students can translate classroom learning into community engagement. For the past three years, the Cobey First-Year Seminar Fund has helped her vision become reality.

The Cobey Fund, established by Munroe ’74 and Becky ‘75 Cobey in 2002, provides supplementary funding to first-year seminars at Carolina. First-year seminars, unique classes of 15-20 first-year students, allow faculty to teach specialized topics in an intimate classroom setting. In 2011-2012, the Cobey Fund supported 22 seminars, including “Jane Austen, Then and Now,” “The Legacy of the Japanese American Internment from WWII to 9/11” and Parker’s first-year seminar, “Collective Leadership Models for Community Change: Community-Based Partnerships.”

Support helped faculty fund a range of activities, from tickets to Memorial Hall performances to field trips to observe environmental conditions on the N.C. coast.

In her spring 2012 seminar, Parker and 14 first-year students created youth/adult partnerships in vulnerable communities in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, then showcased what they learned at the Peace Education Workshop at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.“I am interested in discovering ways of empowering communities and organizations to solve their most pressing social problems through critical, creative and engaged communication,” Parker said. “The Cobey Fund has allowed me to use innovative teaching methods—such as developing community-based partnerships—that I would not have been able to pursue otherwise.”

Innovation and community engagement created a unique learning environment for Parker’s students.

Becky Jepson, a Spanish and global studies major from Chapel Hill, expected to study famous world leaders when she signed up for Parker’s course. But she soon discovered a more interactive and enriching experience.

“The class was as much about our learning as our engagement,” Becky said. “It was more than volunteering because it was academically guided, and it was a great way to connect with a community off campus and get outside the Chapel Hill bubble.”

At the beginning of the semester, the class split into four teams of three to four students. Each group tackled a project working with under-resourced youth in a local community: one group partnered with Morehead Planetarium to create a science awareness project with kids from the Trinity Court and Pritchard Park communities, one group worked with students at Phoenix Academy to create an after-school spoken word workshop, and another group partnered with youth at McDougle Middle School to create an anti-drug use  campaign. Cobey funds covered art supplies for the students’ projects, and Parker used her years of community service experience, readings on collective leadership models, guest speakers with expertise in youth engagement and the book Community: The Structure of Belonging to guide them.

“Dr. Parker was incredibly passionate about what we were doing,” Becky said. “She really made sure we were thinking, and she asked questions of us at every step. She was good at making sure we were both learning and doing meaningful community work.”

Becky’s group worked with the Rogers Road-Eubanks Neighborhood Association (RENA), a historically black community near Chapel Hill High School. In the 1970s, the Chapel Hill Board of Commissioners placed a landfill in the community, promising to close it 10 years later. But the community battled for decades before finally receiving a promise that the landfill will close in 2013.

In January, Becky’s group approached RENA’s director, David Caldwell, and offered to help the community. With his approval, the group spent Tuesday afternoons teaching weekly leadership and decision-making classes for kids at the RENA community center.

Becky recalls the day a 6-year-old boy reminded her that community engagement requires awareness and sensitivity.

“He said he wanted to be a gangster when he grew up,” Becky said. “We couldn’t just say gangsters were bad because we didn’t know the boy’s background. He was basically saying he wanted to be respected … How do you suggest something positive without knocking people?”

In March, the class traveled to George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. At the Peace Education Workshop, they presented their projects to Professor Arthur Romano’s senior-level course on international peace education in the GMU School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Cobey funds covered transportation, lodging and materials for the trip, enabling every student to attend. This shared experience helped Becky see their work in a new light.

“Going up there let us recognize that the work we were doing was real,” Becky said. “It took outside eyes for us to recognize that [our project] is not just what we do on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s really making a difference.”

By Brittany Darst, Donor Relations Intern, Arts and Sciences Foundation

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