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Good Karma

Good Karma

USC College’s Joint Educational Project puts a new spin on community service

By Kaitlin Solimine
July 2004

Maybe it’s karma that causes good things to happen to good people.

“My mother has always said that everything works out for the best,” says USC College senior and Joint Educational Project volunteer Anita Nageswaran. “And it really seems that everything does turn out well for me.”

Nageswaran, who is a double major in religion and biology and a Baccalaureate M.D. program participant, has sculpted her undergraduate experience around service to others. She, like thousands of other USC students, spends most of her volunteer time at the College’s Joint Educational Project (JEP), one of the nation’s oldest and largest service-learning programs.

The Woman with a Plan
JEP wasn’t always the service-learning powerhouse it is now, but it always had lofty visions. In 1972, the late Barbara Gardner, director of what was then the College’s center for urban affairs, noticed a growing divide between the University and its surrounding community and decided to take action.

“Gardner wanted to develop a way in which USC students and the community could have a more reciprocal relationship,” says Tammy Anderson, current director of JEP.

As a result, Gardner established a program (now JEP) that would act as a broker for mutually beneficial educational partnerships, connecting faculty, students and academic courses with schools, hospitals and community-based agencies in the neighboring community as well as greater L.A. The idea was that not only would the community benefit, but USC students would also gain a new sort of knowledge through their tutoring and/or mentoring experiences.

“JEP emphasizes the fact that members of an academic community have as much to gain from the surrounding community as the community gains from them,” says College Dean Joseph Aoun. “Students who grind away alone in a dorm room deprive themselves of the knowledge of others and of the rewarding, reinforcing experience of sharing their own unique knowledge.”

The academic community at USC has quickly recognized the benefits of JEP. The program has blossomed from just 200 USC student participants in its first year to more than 2,000 today. JEP staff and student assistants work with more than 50 faculty to develop service-learning components in courses where faculty believe that community service will enrich student understanding of class concepts and readings. At the same time, the program now partners with organizations such as foster care programs, battered women’s shelters and after-school programs.

The Trojan Health Volunteers (THV), which originated in 1987, is such a partnered program. THV places pre-med students in local hospitals and clinics and is one of the most popular JEP programs.

“The ‘white-coat’ experience of THV offers precocious students the opportunity to see the real ER, working in some of the largest and busiest hospitals in L.A.,” says Anderson.

Nationally Recognized
In 2000, Time Magazine/Princeton Review recognized JEP’s integral role in USC’s commitment to public service when it featured USC as its College of the Year 2000. The accolade was largely based on the College’s longtime support of service learning.

Anderson defends the honor. “JEP’s long-term goal is for students to develop increased awareness and appreciation for the validity of an academic discipline beyond the confines of the classroom,” she says.

“Sometimes it seems selfish,” says Nageswaran. “I mean, so many of my experiences volunteering through an organization like JEP’s Trojan Health Volunteers directly relate to my pre-med coursework and help me academically, as well as personally.”

Whether they come selfishly or selflessly, the learning experiences available to students through JEP are certainly aplenty. Though most participants (which now total nearly 50,000 since 1972) first pass through the doors of the old Victorian house on 34th Street that houses JEP in order to get extra credit for a class, many stay on, volunteering and eventually even working as program assistants who coordinate student placement into JEP programs.

JEP’s Student Impact
Lia Evans, a College junior majoring in sociology and minoring in Spanish and psychology, has found that JEP has given her a new perspective on life and her studies.

“Doing JEP has helped me understand how lucky I am,” says Evans, who won the 2004 Peer Achievement Award for her commitment to community service and tutors at a JEP-affiliated high school. “I also have begun to notice the reflection of my tutoring on my sociological coursework and vice versa.”  

Nageswaran, who works at JEP as a program assistant for both a battered women’s shelter and a foster care program and is a THV volunteer, has also felt the impact of JEP on her life.

“The women in the battered women’s shelter are so strong to be able to break out of a negative cycle of abuse,” she says. “It’s really inspiring to me.”

These shared insights often cause JEP volunteers to feel a strong camaraderie on campus.

“JEP is like a family to me. We’re all doing meaningful work and making similar connections between our time in JEP programs and our time in USC classrooms. It connects us in such a significant way,” says Nageswaran. “I hardly know anyone at USC who hasn’t volunteered through JEP — it becomes such a common experience.”

Likewise, JEP seems to breed a similar “I can make a difference” attitude among its many participants.

 “I always try to enjoy the here and now,” says Evans. “I focus on what I can do to affect positive change on a personal day-to-day basis rather than feeling burdened by trying to save the entire world.”