April 15, 2009

Building Community Connections

Neighborhood activists receive fellowships to pursue master’s degrees in public policy

“These professionals are a link between the theory we teach and the world in which our students hope to have an impact and problem solve,” says James Jennings. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Three community activists from Boston’s urban neighborhoods will attend graduate school at Tufts starting this fall without having to worry about how to pay the tuition, thanks to the Neighborhood Fellows program, which was launched five years ago. The incoming students will be chosen by April 30, and will work toward a master’s degree in public policy.

The Neighborhood Fellows program helps increase the enrollment of minority students in the M.P.P. program, says James Jennings, a professor in the department of urban and environmental policy and planning. At the same time, it seeks to introduce working professionals from Boston’s urban neighborhoods into the classroom.

“These professionals are a link between the theory we teach and the world in which our students hope to have an impact and problem solve,” says Jennings. “They know about the current problems and the issues in these communities and can translate that experience.”

Tufts maintains up to five slots for students enrolling in its M.P.P. program through Neighborhood Fellows. Seven fellows have graduated since the program began, and 11 more are currently enrolled.

Tulaine Marshall, G10, president of New Resource Strategies, a management consulting firm that assists nonprofits, is a current Neighborhood Fellow. Graduate school, she says, “was a dream deferred because of the cost and the time required to complete a master’s program.”

As a fellow, Marshall has focused on financial analysis and organizational development. She notes the “incredible symmetry between my studies and my practice in the field.”

May Louie graduated from the program last May. She came to Tufts from the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), a nonprofit that serves Roxbury-North Dorchester, one of the poorest communities in Boston. Louie directs a program that grooms residents for roles as community leaders and advocates for neighborhood causes.

Louie focused her studies on urban land trusts and the ways in which communities in other states have used them to preserve affordable housing while also controlling development in their neighborhoods. She found her graduate studies immediately relevant since DSNI has created its own land trust as a tool to help families avoid foreclosures.

The Tufts program “was a good learning experience; the faculty was wonderful, and the chance to apply my knowledge almost immediately made everything worthwhile,” says Louie.

An important benefit of the program is the substantive contributions to class discussion and debate that the fellows make through their real-life experiences, says Jamshed Bharucha, provost and senior vice president. The students also help foster stronger connections between Tufts and local communities. The fellows, in turn, are exposed to new theories and approaches, ideas that they can later apply in their work.

Tuition for traditional students who enroll full-time in the M.P.P. program is $38,000. Part-time students pay $3,662 per course. But Tufts waives these costs for the Neighborhood Fellows.

The program “advances our commitment to civic engagement and also provides these dedicated community leaders an opportunity for mid-career professional development,” adds Bharucha.

The fellows are drawn largely, though not exclusively, from Boston neighborhoods where concerns have revolved around urban community politics, economics, social life, education and housing. Jennings meets with community groups three or four times a year to review details of the Neighborhood Fellows program. Candidates are nominated through a network that encompasses Boston and surrounding communities.

The nominees are evaluated by a panel that includes Jennings, department chair Julian Agyeman and a faculty member from the department’s admissions committee. Nominees are required to have worked at least seven years in a management role within their organizations.

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