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NewsSep 13, 2021

Undergraduates spend summer helping local nonprofits

Community Engagement Summer Fellowship matches student interests with local needs

Photograph of the Charles River with blue sky and blue water and buildings of Cambridge in the background.

By Georgia Sparling

After a one-year hiatus, our Office of Community Service’s Community Engagement Summer Fellowship (formerly Summer Corps) resumed as five students committed ­788 hours to working with nonprofits in the Cambridge and Boston area.

“This program is what the OCS is all about — growing alongside one another, building meaningful relationships, taking action in the community and deepening our partnerships in the Cambridge and Boston community, with an emphasis on local organizations that are committed to racial equity,” says Community Service Coordinator Jamie Kherbaoui.

Students are selected for the 9-week, paid fellowship, part of the federal work study program, through an application process. Kherbaoui matches those selected with organizations that need help and align with students’ interests.

Art advocate in training

Daniel Serrano ’22, a senior Illustration major from Puerto Rico, wanted to find a way to use his creative skills for advocacy.

“I was very attracted to the idea of artists using their work to push for a social issue or to raise awareness of a certain problem,” he says. Although some of his heroes are art activists, Serrano wasn’t sure how to get started himself. “It’s like activist artists, they just spawn out of the mud and know what they’re doing.”

Serrano volunteered with Project Right to Housing in Cambridge, which gave the illustrator the opportunity to try his hand at art advocacy.

Illustration "Community Picnic Rain or Shine!"
Daniel Serrano ’22 used his illustration skills to design social media posts for Project Right to Housing.

Throughout the summer, Serrano’s primary responsibility was to create fliers and posters for social media and print to promote the group’s events and work, but he also attended many of their events and was impressed that unhoused community members were included in the conversation.

“I think that’s pretty radical. When you talk about any marginalized group, typically the people who are speaking the most are not from that group,” says Serrano.

Aside from attending some OCS events, community engagement was new to him.

“I was expecting it to be more serious, maybe a little boring,” he says.

Instead, Serrano found that many of the organizers were also students with similar interests. “The people there are very honest and authentic and they truly care. That enthusiasm is contagious.”

In the archives

Fellow artist Alina Balseiro ’22, a Photography major and Design minor, also put their interests to use for the fellowship. Balseiro, a New Jersey native, has been active in community engagement within Lesley, including as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Chair of the Lesley University Dance Team, but had not worked in the greater Cambridge community.

Kids with masks in a room with gold walls and a disco ball
In addition to the fellowship, Alina Balseiro ’22 interned with the Community Art Center, working with children throughout the summer.

Balseiro was matched with the Community Art Center, a nonprofit focused on young artists, where they would also be a summer intern as part of their graduation requirements. For the internship, Balseiro worked with youth in the center’s summer programs. For the fellowship, they selected films from the Do It Your Damn Self National Youth Film Festival archive for a future compilation in honor of its upcoming 25th anniversary.

Teens created the festival at the center because they didn’t feel represented in the films they saw, says Balseiro, who reviewed hundreds of films on DVDs, hard drives and VHS tapes for the reel.

Mentee becomes mentor

Jackie Mendoza-Lozano ’22 also worked with youth this summer. An Early Childhood Education and Creative Writing major from Chelsea, Massachusetts, Mendoza-Lozano helped teenagers who live in Cambridge public housing improve their SAT scores through the Cambridge Work Force’s Summer College Immersion Program.

“When I got this opportunity to be part of the community and actually be involved in things such as education and writing with high school students, it was an opportunity I couldn’t really let go,” says the Urban Scholars Initiative student.

The sessions were conducted via Zoom, which made it more difficult to connect with the students, Mendoza-Lozano says, but her experience as a first-generation college student gave her an “in.” Most of the participants are also first-generation students of color from immigrant families.

“I’ve always been the mentee for most of my time at Lesley,” she says. “Being that person they could go to if they needed help or had any questions…it was really cool.”

Over the weeks, she said the students opened up to her.

“These kids have amazing stories to tell. I really had to gain their trust for them to be so vulnerable for me,” says Mendoza-Lozano.

The pandemic did present challenges and limit in-person interactions, but Kherbaoui says it had an impact on the students and the community.

“This program is essential to our commitment to social justice.”