Students Put Humanities in Action, Build Lasting Connections

Humanities in Action (HIA)—a new, joint program between We CU Community Engaged Scholars and the Humanities Research Institute—launched in fall 2022 with its first cohort of seven undergraduate students in the humanities. The Community Learning Lab in the School of Social Work matched each student with a local organization to address a vital area of need in Champaign-Urbana. In addition to the practical work experience they gained, these students forged valuable partnerships and lasting connections that have, in some cases, extended beyond their involvement in HIA.

Photo of Priyanka Zylstra
Priyanka Zylstra

Graduate student Priyanka Zylstra (History)—who served as We CU student support coordinator for HIA alongside Margarita Garcia Rojas (History)—values this opportunity to bring the community and university together. "As I pursue my PhD, I strive to envision futures beyond the academy," she said. "I continue to think about how my own research can center connections between scholarship, activism, and community. We CU provides an opportunity to think through community-centered engagement and also explore future careers beyond the academy."

An essential part of the HIA mission is to approach the work in ways that are responsible and socially just. "This work encourages a more racially inclusive and socially just community within the university, and can help foster an educational space that pushes the academy to better serve the people in and around them," said Zylstra. Her experience with HIA also prompted her to challenge the norm of scholarship as a solitary, independent pursuit. "I have started to think critically about how my academic work fits in collaborative spaces and can have collective impact," she said.

Headshot of student Laura Garcia
Laura Garcia

HIA scholar Laura Garcia (Anthropology, Class of 2023) is one of the students whose work reflects that collective impact. At the Education Justice Project, she served as a Spanish translator for their Reentry Guide Initiative. The guide aids individuals who face deportation to Mexico or Central America after incarceration or detention, or those who live with the threat of deportation.

For Garcia, meeting the other HIA students and collectively defining what service and community means to them was a highlight of the experience. "Another highlight," she added, "was completing my work with Education Justice Project and seeing my contributions in the final product." Read the full story on Garcia's EJP experience.

HIA scholar Maya Robinson (Urban Studies and Planning, Class of 2025) was matched with Sola Gratia, a community-based farm dedicated to creating a regional food system that is accessible to all, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged. Robinson participated in farmers markets, Free Friday Market, and CSA distributions as part of her experience.

Headshot of HIA scholar Maya Robinson, outdoors holding a yellow flower
Maya Robinson

"Hosting an HIA student was helpful, meaningful, and natural for us, and I'd be happy to offer another opportunity down the line," said Traci Barkley, director at Sola Gratia.

For Zylstra, one of the most gratifying aspects of HIA is the ripple effect afterwards. "In just one year of Humanities in Action, several of our first cohort went on to continuing work with their community partner through paid internships or post-graduation fellowship opportunities," she said. "Seeing our students develop community relationships that extend beyond the duration of this program, and witness our program truly encourage long-term community engagement, has been incredibly rewarding."

Read more about the 2022 Humanities in Action cohort.

The first round of Humanities in Action was made possible through the generous support of alumnus Dr. Dan Shin (LAS ’91).