College English students in Anchorage agonized over their homework this summer, but not for the reasons you’d think. Instead of turning in an assignment and moving on, their work will determine, for example, whether formerly homeless families will be provided mattresses and bedding through Catholic Social Services or if the Alaska Injury Prevention Network can provide convertible car seats to new refugee families.
Obviously, it wasn’t a typical homework assignment, but this wasn’t a typical class.
For the past two years, University of Alaska Anchorage has offered a two-semester partnership between the English and Civic Engagement departments, connecting college students to local nonprofits for a detailed discussion of philanthropy in Alaska.
With $10,000 to invest in pressing problems for worthy agencies, the students writing and reviewing these grants have more on the mind than just getting a grade.
The first leg of the current class started in summer, when representatives from eight area non-profits visited Angela Anderson’s technical writing class. Teams of students met with their assigned agency to better understand its missions, its goals and the impact a grant could have. With eight agencies and only four grants, each word of the students’ writing assignments mattered.
When the fall semester started, technical writing students handed their finished grant proposals to peers enrolled in Civic Engagement: Learning by Giving, who will decide how to allocate funds. It’s not a light decision. To provide context, Professor Judith Owens-Manley—who also directs UAA’s Center for Community Engagement & Learning—stacked the semester with guest speakers and think tanks to broaden their perspective.
“I love teaching this class. It’s just very moving,” Owens-Manley said of her seminar-style course, part of UAA’s civic engagement certificate program. Classroom discussions cover everything from the history and philosophy of philanthropy to the responsibility and sustainability of giving, all within Alaska’s unique framework.
The course is largely a product of Owens-Manley’s persistence; she not only encouraged non-profit directors to participate, but also pursued national grants and local matches to fund her students’ work.
UAA is one of 43 colleges nationwide that receives funding from the Learning by Giving Foundation—a national philanthropy-focused non-profit headed by Doris Buffett. After securing the base $5,000 grant from the Foundation, Owens-Manley went two steps further. She secured a local match from the Atwood Foundation and Foraker Group, then paired her class with technical writing students to increase the scope of the project and the students involved.
Now in its third year, UAA’s Learning by Giving course grants have already awarded bus passes to residents of women’s shelter AWAIC, eight months of transportation fuel for Beans Café’s youth hunger programs, and early childhood education materials at sexual violence prevention group STAR.
“The hands-on real-life experiences students at UAA receive in this class are invaluable,” said Marcia Howell, executive director of Alaska Injury Prevention Center, one of the non-profits involved in this year’s class (the agency’s student-written proposal would help provide car seats to Alaska parents, if funded).
Howell, who has worked in Alaska’s nonprofit sector for 25 years, values the course’s dual impact. Regardless of where they end up, she said, “lessons learned in this class will benefit both the students and the community [and] provide a perspective of how we can all work together to improve the quality of our lives and those of our neighbors.”
Caitlin Taylor, a 2016 sociology graduate, is now pursuing her certificate in civic engagement. As one of two students blogging about the course for Learning by Giving’s national website, she’s found plenty to report.
“We have had more people talk to us in this class than in any course I’ve taken before,” she said, listing, among others, First Lady of Anchorage Mara Kimmel and Laurie Wolf, executive director of the Foraker Group. “These leaders are absolutely inspiring, and make you feel important as part of Alaska’s future.”
She likewise appreciates the openness of major players in the state, and their willingness to address this small college seminar, where students—who may not have money, but do have energy and ideas—can join the conversation. “These experiences are exactly what every college student—and ideally, high school [student]—needs to have in order to feel empowered and knowledgeable about their community,” Taylor said.
The course has proven engaging and appealing for both students and the nonprofit sector. “I’m just surprised at how eager and happy people have been to introduce another generation to the work they do,” Owens-Manley noted, adding whether her students become philanthropists or board members (or neither) they’ll be “people who have a stake and take pride in their community.”
The Learning by Giving class will distribute $10,000 among four nonprofits on Nov. 30. Students will make their announcement at a semester-ending celebration alongside all course stakeholders—the donors, the recipients, the guest speakers and, importantly, the English students who’ve waited months to finally learn the outcome of their summer homework assignment.
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement