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Stevenson Center student reaching new heights in Montana

Cook on a mountaintop

Molly Cook's serving spirit brought her to Montana for her professional practice with the Missoula Economic Parntership.

Cook on a mountain in Peru

Cook in Peru on a democracy and human rights study abroad trip in the summer of 2017.

Molly Cook’s desire to help others led her to the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development at Illinois State University. An experienced public servant, she focuses on providing resources for those in need. Cook is currently completing the professional practice portion of the program while earning a master’s degree in sociology.

A Michigan native, Cook went to Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, where she double majored in sociology and theology. Already passionate about serving others, she found that sociology explained the systemic problems she noticed in her volunteer work.

Cook planned on going directly into graduate school after graduating summa cum laude, but she felt drawn to service. As a Mission Corps Volunteer with Maggie’s Place in Arizona, Cook lived with expectant mothers facing homelessness and ensured that their needs would be met.

Cook then worked for a year with Christ the King Service Corps in Detroit. “It’s a little different than an AmeriCorps program,” Cook explained. “We would do the same work requirements that an AmeriCorps program would do, but where it was a little different is that we committed to living in community with other people who were doing service placements.”

“I think that one of the greatest things we can do in life is to build relationships with people.” – Molly Cook

Cook appreciated the communal lifestyle, which involved sharing cars and resources with ten others. The Corps members lived in the neighborhood they were serving.

“It was this amazing and incredible experience,” Cook reflected.

For Cook, the drive in serving others is to build meaningful relationships.

“I think that one of the greatest things that we can do in life is to build relationships with people and be in community with one another,” Cook said. “And I think the best way to do that is to walk with each other on our journeys.”

Cook was torn between pursuing sociology or social work, as both deal with how people relate to their social environments, but she decided to study sociology to potentially pursue work in advocacy.

“Every single person I would chat with, who was in this pivotal moment in their life, where they were experiencing something that was challenging, it seemed like a lot of the reasons these were occurring were, again, systemic. Things like a lack of housing, or a lack of food, and a lack of job availability,” Cook explained.

In the Applied Community and Economic Development (ACED) Fellows program at the Stevenson Center, Cook took sociology and interdisciplinary classes during her first year. ACED Fellows go on to complete 11 months of paid professional practice with a host organization.

Cook with a friend in front of a mountain

Cook adjusted well to life in Missoula, Montana.

Cook wondered what the experience would be like, being back in the classroom after spending time in the field, but she loved her classes and succeeded academically. She received the Charter Department Graduate Student Excellence Award from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in the spring of 2017. In the fall, she was honored with a University Club Scholarship.

Cook is now completing her professional practice with the Missoula Economic Partnership in Montana. It is a small but powerful organization dedicated to bringing high-paying and high-tech jobs to Missoula. Cook works on business retention and expansion, helping businesses that want to relocate to Missoula and connecting local businesses that want to grow with the resources to do so.

Attending several networking events every week, Cook is further developing relationships in the field and cultivating professional skills.

“We are trying to meet with a hundred businesses in Missoula by March,” Cook said.

Cook adjusted well to Montana, describing it as her smoothest transition. She finds that the tight-knit community in Missoula rallies together to help each other.

Additionally, Cook is working on a thesis related to social enterprises that employ people experiencing homelessness, and her dream is to open a coffee shop using this approach. She is considering different options for her future but wants to make helping others her core mission.

Cook appreciated the open dialogue between fellow graduate students to discuss different ideas. She found a strong support network from the faculty, staff, and students at the Stevenson Center. Cook offers simple advice for students considering the Stevenson Center.

“Just do it. Don’t overthink it.”

Sarah Aten is the Stevenson Center’s public relations intern.