Imagine a ballroom packed with undergraduate students flanked by their research posters. The room hums as students discuss topics ranging from cellular biology to electoral politics to creative writing. At the Massachusetts Statewide Undergraduate Research Conference (MURC), held each April at UMass, Amherst, Westfield State students joined more than 1000 of their peers from across the commonwealth for a day-long exchange of research and creative work. Of the 48 Westfield State students who participated, many are members of the Honors Program; quite a few were first-year students.
My “Writing That Matters” group collaborated with the Holyoke Early Literacy Initiative, or HELI, an organization that works with family, community members, the school system, and activists to improve Holyoke’s early literacy for children from birth to third grade. HELI’s work is important because the city of Holyoke has noticeably low literacy rates. In 2013, 13% of Holyoke’s third grade students scored proficient or advanced on the MCAS, compared to a 57% state average.
For our “Writing that Matters” civic engagement project, my group contributed to Westfield State’s first ever Fresh Check Day, an event held on college campuses around the country to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues, to encourage students to speak up about mental health concerns, and to bring to light the fact that there are 1,100 college student suicides each year. Despite the somber reason for Fresh Check Day, the event provides a lively and fun environment in which students connect with each other, become allies for the mental health community, and work to prevent suicide. Participants visit activity booths, interact and connect with fellow students, and compete for cool prizes.
Civic engagement classes involve students in community outreach and service learning as a primary part of the curriculum. In Professor Catherine Savini’s Honors civic engagement first-year composition course “Writing That Matters,” we chose different community-based writing projects.