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Drexel’s New UConnect Initiative Connects West Philadelphia Residents with Essential Social Services

UConnect will train members of the Drexel community to act as navigators, helping local residents get connected with a range of services and opportunities.

December 21, 2015

While Philadelphia is plagued by a 26 percent poverty rate, it is also home to hundreds of programs, agencies and organizations that exist to help low-income and marginalized people find housing assistance, job training, legal help, food access, college planning and more. Accessing these resources and opportunities, however, can be a challenge, due to the complexity of the social service landscape.

A new initiative from Drexel University’s Lindy Center for Civic Engagement and the College of Arts and Sciences will address this issue through a service called UConnect, which will train members of the Drexel community to act as navigators, helping local residents get connected with a range of services and opportunities.

Based at the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships (35th and Spring Garden Streets), UConnect will serve Drexel’s neighboring “Promise Zone” communities of West Philadelphia.

A launch event will be held Tuesday, Jan. 5 at 5 p.m. at the Dornsife Center. The event will include remarks from Cicely Peterson-Mangum, the executive director for the Dornsife Center, and Donna Murasko, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as a ribbon-cutting ceremony and tours of the space.

Following the event, attendees will be encouraged to attend the Dornsife Center’s monthly community dinner beginning at 6 p.m., which is free and open to the public.

“Creating and cultivating interpersonal connections is in many ways at the heart of how we approach civic engagement at Drexel,” said Peterson-Mangum. “The UConnect model lets our students, faculty and staff work in collaboration with residents to facilitate access to important resources, and it gives members of the Drexel community an opportunity to act as advocates for our neighbors. This direct, personal connection can deepen our own sense of citizenship and our roles as agents of change in our communities.”

The urban extension center will function as a navigational referral system. Students and other trained volunteers will meet with community members one-on-one to assess needs, set goals – from finding employment to housing and education – and then connect them with vital community resources. But the service won’t stop there – the navigators will continue to track clients’ progress until their needs have been met.

The outcomes of the program will be measured and evaluated to provide evidence for grants and support. The effort will track the program’s effectiveness, including the number and quality of referrals as well as progress toward achieving community members’ goals. It will also glean community member and partner feedback to continually monitor and improve UConnect’s services.

The backbone of staffing for the center will be provided by students from the criminal justice course “Justice in our Community,” a community-based learning course that will be offered each term in the College of Arts and Sciences. The class will be taught by Cyndi Rickards, EdD, senior assistant dean for community engagement and assistant teaching professor of in the Department of Criminology & Justice Studies.

“The College’s community-based-learning courses are the perfect vehicle for helping to address the issues that impact our local communities,” said Dean Murasko. “By training our students to work proactively with our neighbors who are facing these issues, students learn not only the theoretical principles underlying social change, but also the practical skills needed to make these changes and, importantly, the equally powerful skills of empathy and understanding.”

Gina Gendusa, former program director for LIFT Philadelphia, who will serve as associate director in the Lindy Center, will oversee UConnect’s community programmatic elements, while Rickards will direct the academic components.

“While there are many other programs in the city that connect people with social services, UConnect is unique for so many reasons,” said Gendusa. “Our place-based model allows us to meet with our neighbors and get involved with them in a meaningful way. We are really supporting people and helping them to establish pathways to essential services like employment, healthcare and housing.”

The program will be equally beneficial to the students involved.

“By supporting their neighbors in navigating the complex landscape of opportunities, students will learn first-hand, in a very personal and human way, about knowledge application and real and pervasive issues of social justice,” said Rickards. “We hope that students will take the UConnect experience with them back into their homes, classrooms and professional lives, becoming the civically engaged change agents our communities need.

In addition to students from Rickards’ recurring “Justice in our Community” course, additional students, faculty, staff and alumni from Drexel are also encouraged to participate. Volunteers will be required to fulfill an application process and eligibility requirements, as well attend an intensive training program.

Spring term classes that have already signed on to be involved include a “Nonprofit PR” course taught by Danielle Greenwell, which will create social media campaigns, brochures and other promotional materials for UConnect; the anthropology course “Community Engagement,” taught by Jenna Musket, which will create evaluations for the program; and the side-by-side course “History of Philadelphia,” taught by Scott Knowles, PhD, in which students will create a place-based history that can be used for grants and funding opportunities.

UConnect is intended to be a replicable model so it can be adapted and implemented at institutions within communities nationwide.

For more information or to make an appointment, please call 215.571.4860.

Media Contact:
Alex McKechnie