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Urban semester offers students
exposure to life, issues in city
December 7, 1998

Although Hartford is only 20 minutes away from her suburban hometown of South Windsor, Melissa St. John says the two communities are a world apart.

St. John, a seventh-semester human development and family resources major, is spending the semester living and working in Hartford as part of the Urban Semester program. "There is such a range of experience and diversity in Hartford, quite different from what I saw growing up," she says. "The exposure to city life broadened my perception of the urban community."

"The biggest impact the Urban Semester program has on its students is that it imbues them with a desire to get involved in the lives of others."

Yasha Escalera
Urban Semester Alumnus
Co-President, Dresca Construction Inc.

The Urban Semester program, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, provides students an opportunity to do internships with a variety of social agencies, including shelters, school programs, the criminal justice system, and political organizations.

Students work 27 hours a week in their internships, and attend seminars held at the UConn Hartford campus.

Students in the program are regarded as Storrs students in an off-campus program, says Louise Simmons, an assistant professor of social work and director of the program.

The classes focus on urban issues, such as changes in the welfare system, as well as theoretical and sociological implications of urban life.

As part of the interdisciplinary seminar, students also take part in cultural events in Hartford. Recently, for example, the students attended a reading in the Voices series of dramatic readings by emerging playwrights of color produced at Hartford Stage.

Students live in apartments in the west end of Hartford in order to be "fully immersed in the urban experience" says Simmons.

Students agree that living in Hartford plays a crucial role in understanding urban life. "I think living in Hartford is perhaps one of the most beneficial aspects of the program," says Melissa St. John. "I've come to see Hartford as a community where people want to live and work, not as the war zone the media portrays it as."

Simmons says the program originated in the midst of the social activism and heightened community consciousness that were hallmarks of the 1960s. From campus protests about the Vietnam war to the growing awareness of the problems of racism and the plight of the urban community, there was a burgeoning social awareness, she says, and UConn students demanded a way to be actively involved in making a positive contribution to the urban environment.

One outcome was the Urban Semester, a program aimed at involving students in the issues faced by the inner cities of Hartford and New Haven.

"The program was born out of students' desire to contribute to the urban community, to combat the problem of racism, and to help people in their day-to-day lives and struggles for survival," says Simmons. Urban Semester still incorporates the activism that began in the 1960s as well as an opportunity for career development, she adds.

Many students explore the professions of social work, public interest law, and child services while interning in Hartford. "Students get a chance to test out the waters, and find out what sparks their interest," says Simmons.

For many students, the internship experience has led to a career in a related field of study. Kim Muzeroll, a student in the program in 1993, did an internship at the capital with State Rep. Juan Figaro. Muzeroll is currently an executive assistant to Secretary of the State Miles Rappoport. "The internship exposed me to different cultures, races, and ethnic groups," says Muzeroll, who went from the "typical small-town lifestyle" of Marlborough to the "drastically different" urban environment of the inner city. "Working with Juan Figaro was my first exposure to the General Assembly," says Muzeroll. "My experiences at the capital and in Hartford definitely shaped who I am today."

Greg Vickers, program manager and research analyst at the Citizen Research Education Network, is currently supervising Urban Semester interns Deidre Imagire and Sarathi Ray. Vickers describes the students as a "boon to the program." The students create surveys, input and process survey data, and poll neighborhood residents in order to quantify the assets and the needs of citizens in the Hartford community, he says.

The interns' project focuses on the Asylum Hill revitalization program. "The goal is to create new businesses in Hartford using the skills and talents already present in the community," says Deidre Imagire, a fifth-semester sociology major.

Yasha Escalera, who did an internship with the program in 1973 and is now co-president of Dresca Construction Inc., has done just that. After serving in a number of politically affiliated positions, Escalera started Dresca Construction, a company focusing on revitalizing and rebuilding the downtown area. Dresca was one of the contractors who built the Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford, and is currently working on remodeling apartments in the Hartford area.

"I think the biggest impact the Urban Semester program has on its students is that it imbues them with a desire to get involved in the lives of others, and to affect a positive change in the community," he says.

The Urban Semester program celebrated its 30th anniversary December 4 at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford. Mel King, professor emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a social justice activist in Boston was the keynote speaker. Many current and former participants of the program attended.

Jennifer Ridder