This fall, the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development celebrates 25 years at Illinois State University. Since 1994, the Illinois Board of Higher Education-approved center has been bringing service-minded students to Illinois State’s campus and been a key component in the University’s efforts to promote its core value of civic engagement.
The center operates two master’s degree programs geared to preparing students for careers in community development: the Peace Corps Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program and the Applied Community and Economic Development Fellows Program.
About 30 students are enrolled in these two-year programs with plans of study in anthropology, applied economics, kinesiology and recreation, political science, and sociology. The students spend the first year on campus, taking classes and serving as either a teaching or research assistant. During the second year, the center places the fellows with community and nonprofit organizations across the country, where they gain real-world development experience.
The Stevenson Center also runs an undergraduate program for students interested in entering Peace Corps and engages in direct service in Bloomington-Normal through a long-term research project for the McLean County criminal justice system.
Associate Professor of Sociology Frank Beck and Senior Associate Director Beverly Beyer have led the center for the last 15 years. In this Q&A, Beck talked about the center’s history, mission, and programs. The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
How and why did the center start?
Bob Hunt, faculty member in political science who had development experience overseas, worked with the Kellogg Foundation to establish a Peace Corps Fellows Program. With colleagues at Western Illinois University, he established the first Peace Corps Fellows Program in community and economic development for returned Peace Corps volunteers to bring their experience back to the States.
The focus was on rural Illinois communities, and it started with economics and political science and then grew into sociology. Then we recruited those with domestic experience, not just Peace Corps experience. So now, we have the Peace Corps Fellows Program and the Applied Community and Economic Development Fellows Program, which is focused on people with AmeriCorps-type experiences, not just AmeriCorps itself. All the students come here for graduate degrees. Since the beginning, the program has been one year on campus, one year in the field for both programs.
Would you say the way the program as set up guarantees a diverse pool of students?
That’s true in terms of discipline. There are five disciplines at the table, and I can tell you from teaching the graduate seminars that the conversations are stimulating to say the least. The students are learning from each other. Economists are not used to reading or thinking like a sociologist, and political scientists are not necessarily used to thinking or hearing about the very community-focused recreation side of things. There’s great diversity in the classroom.
The other way in which it’s diverse is that the students come from all over the country, compared to the undergraduate population here, which is very much Illinois focused. We have students from California to Maine to Florida. They come from all different geographies and they come with at least a year, if not two years, of post-bachelor’s experience, domestic or with the Peace Corps.
They’re coming to us as 25-, 26-, 27-year-old graduate students, and it’s not just an age thing, it’s a focus. They already know what they want to do. Some go on to a Ph.D., some go on to a law degree, but mostly the focus is on service and a career in public service. My guess is that the strongest connection between us and the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning is just the body of students that come through us are already engaged in their communities.
Do the graduate students receive some sort of assistantship?
They have a graduate assistantship, likely 20 hours a week as a teaching assistant or a research assistant in their home department. They receive a stipend for that assistantship, and having an assistantship allows the tuition waiver to be in place so they receive a monthly amount for nine months that they’re here. The tuition waiver is in place for the entire calendar year. That takes care of their course work. Then they have both a higher stipend and full-tuition waiver for their 11 months of professional practice in the second year. They still have to pay fees, but they are financially supported by a generous package that draws them in.
You said this was the first program like this in the country. Has this become a model across the country?
There are other community and economic development programs now that have Peace Corps Fellows, returned Peace Corps volunteers. Across disciplines, there are more than 120 such programs where returned Peace Corps volunteers are both in the classroom and in the field, and (Stevenson Center Senior Associate Director) Beverly Beyer is called upon regularly at gatherings of Peace Corps programs to talk about how we do it. So yes, there are other programs that do this.
Community development programs existed before this and still exist and come in various forms. I wouldn’t claim that we were the first community development program in the country. We’re the first community development program that welcomed returned Peace Corps volunteers and we’re perhaps the only one that has it entirely set up where it’s one year on campus and one year in the field, which can be anywhere in the U.S. That’s rare and that’s one of the reasons that students like the balance of classroom and the applied.
For people who might not know, why do we call it the Stevenson Center?
Adlai Stevenson II was the governor of Illinois in the 1950s, a presidential candidate, and then ambassador to the United Nations. He was born here and went to University High School. So there’s a connection to Bloomington-Normal, and he always had an interest in globalizing or providing some international exposure to the Midwest so that folks would understand there’s a broader world out there, and the broader world out there would understand the Midwest. The anti-nuke global peace part of his career fits as does the United Nations, the global perspective, the life dedicated to public service, that certainly fits who we are.
The center has a new program: the Peace Corps Prep program for undergraduate students. Can you describe what that is and why that was started?
The Peace Corps Prep program is an initiative under the umbrella of Peace Corps to connect with universities to help in recruitment of bright undergraduates who want to be global servants in some way. The Peace Corps Prep program asks that the University have a leadership component, an optional language component, a piece that relates to the student’s studies and experiences such that they can apply that overseas, and then a cultural competency piece.
The program started two to three years ago, and the students earn a certificate from Peace Corps. The certificate provides them with a stronger application to Peace Corps itself if they apply. It is also a credential for the student’s resume, no matter what job the student may pursue. The first students to finish Peace Corps Prep so far have gone on to Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, teaching, nonprofits, and law school.
We have experienced growth in that in terms of enrollment, with about 40 to 50 current students in the program. We actually had someone choose ISU because of the Peace Corps Prep program, and others have noted it as a factor. One of the reasons for establishing the program was to help with recruitment for ISU.
Once these prep program students finish their Peace Corps service, can they circulate back into our graduate program?
That is correct. That’s an intended consequence. There are attributes here that would bring a service-minded person back to campus.
Are grants still important to the funding of the center?
Yes, the host organizations who welcome students for the second year pay an administrative piece. That’s the basic way in which funding is provided. Then we have a grant that allows some students to serve as AmeriCorps members and earn an education award. And the jail research project brings in grant funding as do some of our other projects.
Why do you think it’s important that the University has this center? Why is it important to the University’s mission?
I’ll go to the strategic plan, Educate • Connect • Elevate, where civic engagement is one of the core values. The University values civic engagement. We are an example of civic engagement and have been for 25 years.
Personally, I would go one step farther and say that any university hosted by a community has an obligation to provide service back to its host. I think direct service back is a useful piece of what a university claims as its mission, and we see ourselves as helping ISU meet that goal and execute that value.