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Civic engagement courses give Trojans insight into nonprofits

Students spread funds among worthy projects

Teresa Laraby Teresa Lara

On any given day, at any given hour, civic engagement is front and center on and around campus — it’s part of the Trojan spirit.

For USC students who seek a deeper understanding of the nonprofit experience, there are several courses that provide insight into advocacy, management and funding.

At the USC Price School of Public Policy, students work with $10,000 of actual foundation funds that are directly donated to three select nonprofits. Across campus at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, students can enroll in a research course that partners with Liberty Hill grantees on data-driven collaborations.

For graduate student Janna Parris, who was enrolled in the “Research, Practice and Social Change” course at USC Annenberg, her fall semester highlight came when she learned that the organization she had partnered with received additional funding as part of their research.

Journalism graduate students

USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism graduate students interview research participants at the Lunar Year celebration in Chinatown. (Photo/Tucker Parris)

Parris and three classmates collaborated with Asian and Pacific Islanders for LGBT Equality (API Equality-LA) to develop a survey tool that would provide more information on family dynamics on “coming out.” The students chose the Los Angeles Chinatown Lunar Year celebration as the site to interview members of Asian communities on that topic.

Their mission was to gather data on family dynamics that could help API Equality-LA to further customize its advocacy workshops for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities with an interest in Equal Marriage Rights for same-sex couples.

The USC Annenberg class was co-taught by Professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Barbara Osborn, a senior adviser to the Liberty Hill Foundation.

“Multiply these examples many times over, and you have a sense of the course’s impact on the communities surrounding USC,” Osborn said. “Graduate students learn to apply their research skills in partnership with grassroots community organizations — an experience that they can build on over a lifetime.”

At USC Price, students in Professor Emeritus Richard Sundeen’s class are given $10,000 to fund up to five Los Angeles-based nonprofits. Students make a strong case for their organizations and after much discussion and deliberation, they decide which of the proposals will receive funding.

The funding, provided by the Learning by Giving Foundation started by Doris Buffett, sister of investor Warren Buffett, is a growing program that supports similar courses at 31 other colleges and universities across the nation.

“Because students are paired for the class challenge, present their arguments and choose the three recipients as a class,” Sundeen said, “they gain firsthand experience with fund and resource management, negotiation and conflict resolution.

“The take-away,” he added, “is that there is not enough money to fund all of the deserving organizations.”

During the fall semester, Sundeen’s students funded three nonprofits 826LA, Community Services Unlimited and Heart of Los Angeles.

USC seniors Merry Henning and Whitney Tolar of 826LA, a writing and tutoring center, received $4,500 to fund a writing program at Manual Arts High School.

“We had to answer a lot of questions from the class about the specifics of our organization’s financial resources, which we were not necessarily expecting,” Tolar said. “It really came down to details because the finalists were so close.”

Senior Taylor Wolfson and junior Melina Sutton secured $2,500 for Heart of LA, an after-school program located in the Lafayette Park area whose motto is “giving kids a chance to succeed in life.” The funding will be used to establish a children and parents book club to promote literacy as a family activity.

Wolfson, who previously interned under former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s education team, was excited about helping to launch this new endeavor.

“I learned the importance of message delivery and providing relevant information,” she said. “An organization could have a great program it is trying to receive funding for, but lack of preparation or not framing it correctly could deter a foundation or an individual from contributing funds to that nonprofit.”

Junior Michael Lampe, who received $3,000 for Community Services Unlimited to promote community health with class partner Aaron Soskin, said, “The greatest lesson I learned was to take initiative in supporting the local community by taking more innovative classes with real-world impact.”

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