Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2006


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The Holleran Center at 10

The Holleran Center at 10

The Holleran Center at 10

In 1993 in the basement of the chapel, a group of students, professors, staff and community members gathered to discuss how best to integrate academic study with civic engagement. They asked, “How can Connecticut College cultivate students´ active citizenship, leadership, intercultural knowledge and passion for equity and social justice?”

That was the origin of the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy, which this year marks its 10th anniversary of integrating academic and community learning and preparing students for leadership in the public arena.

The Holleran Center is at the leading edge of a national movement emphasizing citizenship and social responsibility in higher education. In its book Colleges with a Conscience, the Princeton Review notes the Center´s important role in the College´s “culture of engagement.” That role includes building partnerships among college and community organizations and supporting community or service learning across the curriculum. Each year, about 25 students complete the center´s certificate Program in Community Action, known among students as PICA.

“We´re preparing students to lead lives of commitment in a complicated world,” says Audrey Zakrisky, director of the center and associate professor of psychology. She works with associate directors Sarah Barr and Tracee Reiser, who is also associate dean for community learning.

The Center´s first certificate recipients graduated in 2000; now 133 alumni, representing 32 departments and programs, have completed the rigorous three-year program of coursework, internship and senior project. Through the program, Zakriski says, “students become aware of root causes of problems, interact with diverse people and learn to think systematically about solutions.”

Barr adds, “These are students who want to change the world. We mentor them, provide them with pathways to knowledge and skills, so they can be effective change agents.”


Holleran Center graduates have achieved academic and co-curricular honors and national student humanitarian awards. They´ve gone on to law school, medical school and other graduate programs and have careers in education, community organizing, youth development, policy research and other fields. They say that the program´s combination of rigorous academics and real-world experiences prepared them well.

Through the Center´s certificate program, Sharlene Jeanty ´04, an American studies major, examined educational inequalities. She found that the program encouraged her to go deeper into the subject. “It helps you think about policy, about structure, about how to get to the next level.”

Marta Magnus ´02, an art major, says that her internship in a low-income neighborhood in Washington, D.C., fueled her passion for “working with kids and giving them opportunities.”

Jeanty and Magnus now direct programs for Citizens Schools, an organization providing innovative after-school programs for urban youth. In May, both received master´s degrees in education (with an “after-school” concentration).

To round up resources and support for after-school programs, you have to be a community leader, says Magnus, who works in Lowell, Mass. Jeanty, who works in Boston, says, “PICA shows you that you can combine forces with others and effect change.”

Lauren Dunton ´05, a former government major interested in urban issues and grass-roots organizing, remembers how the program supported her study of political participation, fair representation and proportional voting. “PICA encourages you to explore things not mainstream, to look at things from different perspectives,” says Dunton, who´s currently a grad student in public policy.

Nina Leezenbaum ´06, a psychology major, knew that she wanted — somehow — to bring effective autism treatment to developing countries. “PICA helped me to make connections and to work in a realistic way,” she says. Through the Center´s certificate program, she learned a respected intervention method for autistic children and used her skills during her internship in Lima, Peru. Today, she´s a research assistant at Boston University Medical Center, helping to assess the needs and abilities of autistic children. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.


Many call the internship — completed the summer before senior year — a transformative experience. The Class of 2007 scholars are now back on campus, processing that experience and preparing to integrate it into their senior projects.

Kevin Finefrock ´07 interned in New Hampshire, working with refugees from Africa and elsewhere. A history major contemplating a teaching career, he´ll examine French-Canadian immigration in the early 20th century, to better view the historical context of current immigration debates.

Duncan Rollason ´07 worked in Knysna, South Africa, with a group promoting awareness and prevention of HIV/AIDS. This school year, he´s surveying CC students´ and New London residents´ knowledge and attitudes about AIDS, with the goal of promoting understanding and reducing social stigma.
Avery Block ´07 interned in Boston at the Joselin Diabetes Center, working with a multidisciplinary team on a study of the quality of life of adults with diabetes. Now she´s researching community support for people having chronic illness, with a focus on diabetic college students.

As part of its mission — to put the liberal arts in action — the Center works with the Office of Volunteers for Community Service (OVCS) to develop and sustain community partnerships, foster community or service learning, and support community-based faculty research. Every year, CC students put in 30,000 hours of work on community projects. Many of these projects, Reiser notes, are developed in close collaboration with community partners. “When we combine our resources and expertise with theirs, we can do so much,” she says.

The College´s community learning program, with courses offered in 17 departments, expands traditional boundaries of teaching and learning. Students in a computer seminar helped local nonprofits develop Web sites; those in a biology class identified pollutants in Long Island Sound; and those in a coaching class brought a weekly program of reading and athletics to local youngsters. A group assessed and supported skill development in children entering a magnet pre-school; other students helped design and construct a two-mile Health Trail and a handicapped-accessible playground in New London. “This is engaged learning,” Reiser says, “with outcomes that benefit the learners and the community.”


The campus “culture of engagement” helps students not only join community projects but lead them. Alexandria Gomes ´04, a sociology-based human relations major, and Tiana Davis ´04, with a double major in government and sociology-based human relations, were troubled by the high drop-out rate in urban high schools. Aiming to empower New London youths to stay on course, they began mentoring middle-schoolers.

With support from the Center and OVCS, their efforts grew into Advocating for Brighter Choices (ABC Mentor Program). Today ABC is still going strong, bringing middle-schoolers to campus twice weekly for sessions devoted to academics, health and steady peer relationships. Gomes, having just completed her master´s degree in nonprofit management, now organizes public policy seminars for Leadership New Jersey. Davis is pursuing an MBA/law degree.

In a community-learning experience, Meghan Hewitt ´06, a neuroscience major, began thinking about just how to get youngsters of all abilities interested in science. She met with area science teachers, developed engaging lessons geared to different abilities and got other Conn students involved.
Through the Center, Hewitt obtained the Athena Social Entrepreneurship Grant, provided by Trish May ´75, to establish the Science Educators´ Group. This year her program continues, aided by the Center, OVCS and the President´s Office. It provides training and resources for CC students who work with area science teachers to show all youngsters that they can “do” science.

At present, the Center is seeking funding to function independently and looking particularly to fund the certificate program´s community-action internships, which this past summer provided 8,000 capacity-building hours to organizations around the country and the world. A grant from Dime Bank has funded a seminar for Holleran Center sophomores; now the Center aims to develop junior and senior seminars as well. It´s also working to develop faculty-student fellowships in community learning and community-based action research.

The goal is to develop and expand programs that advance student learning and the common good. “Our students start with passion, with idealism. Then, they gain knowledge and experience,” Zakriski says. “They don´t just leave here ready to do valuable work. They are doing it.”

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