The Stevenson Center‘s long-established graduate programs are different from more conventional master’s degrees through a balanced approach to education in community and economic development.
Rather than the traditional two years in classrooms, Stevenson Center Fellows put theory into practice their second year by working directly with nonprofit organizations and government agencies across the country.
Regardless of the distance from campus, Fellows both learn and serve the local community, which may be a place completely new to them.
Grayson Bourke is no exception. He is currently completing his 11 months of professional practice with the East Bluff Community Center in Peoria.
“My childhood was fun-filled with good memories like boating and camping in the woods,” Bourke said, “but there were some difficulties too, and I benefited a lot from food pantries. The bouts with poverty weren’t fun, but they make you who you are.”
A native of the Midwest, Bourke grew up not in Illinois but in in central Wisconsin in the small town of Waupaca.
In college, Bourke participated fully in campus life, from student government to peer mentoring programs.
“I was Mr. Involvement in college,” he said. “I missed out on a lot of activities in high school, so I didn’t want to make the same mistake in college.”
Alongside his commitment to various clubs and organizations, his passion for his major—political science—drove Bourke to work with nonprofit organizations after earning his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
“Once I realized that power is in the hands of the people and that it could be used to help people when used responsibly, I realized that I could play a part in the process and help make change wherever I am,” he said. “That’s what got me interested in community development.”
This interest led Bourke to AmeriCorps, which he first experienced during his senior year of college. Placed part-time in an after-school program in an underserved school, he discovered a passion for helping others and ultimately committed to another year of AmeriCorps, this time as a full-time member.
“I applied for City Year Milwaukee, and I did that for a year,” he said. “I was a tutor and mentor at a high school on the Northwest side. It was a huge, eye-opening event for me there, and it made me aware of the lack of opportunities that many kids have to cope with.”
After AmeriCorps and work with nonprofits in Milwaukee like the United Way, Bourke came to Illinois State University for the Applied Community and Economic Development Fellows program in political science. While he was attracted to the financial support Fellows receive, he was mostly drawn to the structure of the program.
“I thought that this program would help me grow as someone interested in community development,” Bourke said. “Most programs are two years spent taking classes, but you learn a lot more by doing and applying the theoretical to practice.”
Bourke has had the opportunity to do just that, serving at the East Buff Community Center since August. He completed a neighborhood assessment to help the community center chart its next phase. That information led him to cultivate new community partnerships. One example is developing and implementing a plan to recruit, train, and manage volunteers, starting with local college students. After taking time to participate and reflect, Bourke has helped create structures and systems for greater operational efficiency. He has adapted as the pandemic continues while maintaining his characteristic optimistic outlook.
Bourke’s advice for current and future Fellows is simple: “Soak up the experience. Whether it’s your cohort, your classes, or your internship, learn to live in the moment and always remember why you came to the program in the first place. That will always be your North Star, and it’ll guide you through any problems you might have.”
For those interested in becoming a Stevenson Center Fellow like Bourke, the Stevenson Center is still accepting applications for three of its degree programs; all materials must be received by March 1.
Dani Park is the Stevenson Center’s public relations graduate assistant.