January 15, 2018 Spotlight Ed Finkel Harris one of three schools in Illinois to match loans to alumni of federal AmeriCorps program The level of funding for national service programs has been a long-standing hot-button issue in our national dialogue. The current federal budget debate in the United States is proving to be no exception and brings the potential to severely impact service initiatives across the board, including AmeriCorps, the popular program that, this year, counts 30 University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy students as alumni. AmeriCorps is administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service. All told through AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and related programs, the Corporation employs 350,000 volunteers annually. AmeriCorps promotes national days of service on September 11 and today, on Martin Luther King Day, providing numerous opportunities for volunteers to work in communities in Chicago and around the country. Since AmeriCorps began in 1994, the program has provided $3.3 billion in education funding for more than 1 million of those volunteers through the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award, which is equivalent to the maximum federal Pell Grant, currently set at $6,000. About 180 colleges and universities match as part of the AmeriSchool campaign. Among those is Harris Public Policy, which became one of only three schools in Illinois to qualify as an AmeriSchool during the 2016-17 school year. Enrollment of AmeriCorps alumni at Harris went from 11 incoming students in 2016 to 20 incoming students in 2017. These students bring their field level policy experience to the classroom dynamic, and in turn benefit from the quantitative and analytical education they receive at Harris, In addition to AmeriCorp alumni in the student body, Harris also has AmeriCorps alumni on faculty and staff including, assistant professor Austin Wright, an alum of Teach For America, and Adam McGriffin, director of career development, an alum of AmeriCorps. The young people who choose to do national service have chosen to invest in their communities. It’s important that universities invest in them in the same way. -Adam McGriffin, AmeriCorps alumnus and director of career development at Harris “It is at the bottom of the grassroots that an AmeriCorps volunteer serves,” McGriffin explains. “Serving in the community gives them a unique understanding of how policy impacts individuals, whether they spend a year working on food insecurity issues, or education access, or disaster mitigation, or some other important issue. When you’re working in FEMA-Corps, or Teach for America, you’re definitely interacting every day with people impacted by policies in a positive or negative way. Having that opportunity to serve puts those volunteers on a strong foundation when they come here to study policy.” “AmeriCorps alumni often come to Harris having seen how policies were ineffective and failing the communities they were serving,” adds Jenny Erickson, director of student recruitment at Harris. “We are recognizing students are pursuing public policy because they want to ask how policy can have positive impacts on the community, and to look at whether or not policies are having the impacts they should.” “When those alumni enter the classroom at Harris, they bring that experience of living in a community and the first-hand view of how a policy they might be researching or hoping to implement has impacted people, McGriffin says. “Our match of the education award is a direct reflection of the value that we as a school see in national service. You can’t overstate the importance of civically engaged young people, someone who dedicates a year of their life to national service, and has that kind of commitment to making a difference.” The matching funds can be crucial for students who have been working for a modest salary, Erickson notes. “The grant is an important factor,” she says. “But the school gains as well. We are getting these students who have had some type of work experience, some type of engagement, and some idea of what they want to pursue and improve.” In addition to the classroom instruction at Harris, AmeriCorps alumni build upon their previous field experience through applied learning opportunities in our Policy Labs, which connect all students with civic organizations, governments and nonprofits, McGriffin says. “The students combine service with applied learning opportunities, and they gain academic rigor and quantitative analysis. Bringing those together in the classroom and in the field creates a heightened understanding of policy upon graduation,” he says. The AmeriCorps alumni to date are active in extracurricular clubs and activities, Erickson added. “Like all of our students, these alumni are eager and hungry, and have this huge enthusiasm,” she says. “And, they need the financial support and the outreach from schools to recognize that.” “It builds a sense of community and a buy-in that we’re all part of this social contract, together,” McGriffin says. “The young people who choose to do national service have chosen to invest in their communities. It’s important that universities invest in them in the same way.” Related stories The Future Builder September 25, 2017 Faculty Spotlight Austin Wright Assistant Professor Austin Wright's research leverages microlevel data to study the political economy of conflict and crime in Afghanistan, Colombia, Indonesia, and Iraq. His work is supported by the National Science Foundation, Niehaus Center for Global Governance, The Asia Foundation, and World Bank.