Stories of Impact

After 25 years, center ties education, activism

September 27, 2012

By Alexandra Macfarlane, Brown Daily Herald

Twenty-five years ago, about 30 first-years ventured from their newfound home on College Hill to build a house.

Their work benefited two low-income Providence families and represented one of the first projects to formalize the University’s commitment to public service through the Center for Public Service — the brainchild of beloved former University President Howard Swearer that is now known as the Swearer Center for Public Service. 

Around the time of its founding, the center also collaborated with a young master’s student who served briefly alongside President Swearer. As the center celebrates its 25th birthday this week, that student — Roger Nozaki MAT ’89 ­— serves as its director.Nozaki said his brief contact with Swearer in 1988 helped him remember the center’s connections to its namesake.“I had some sense of his vision for Brown overall and some sense of his vision for the center,” said Nozaki, who also serves as the associate dean of the college for community and global engagement. 

True to a vision

Swearer served as the University’s 15th president from 1977 to 1988. His tenure emphasized public service as an essential part of the undergraduate experience, and Swearer affirmed this commitment by establishing a center dedicated to this vision in 1986.

From the outset, students were doing projects on the ground. One project recruited student volunteers as part of a nationwide campaign to combat illiteracy, The Herald reported in 1986. In addition, the center sought to centralize information about careers in the public interest.

“Education and social activism can go hand-in-hand,” Swearer told an audience gathered at SaylesHall to officially open the center in the spring of 1987.

Swearer outlined a three-step method to facilitate the University’s engagement in public service. He first called for the relationship between service and educational experiences to be redefined. Then, he said public service must be integrated into the curriculum, and lastly, students and faculty must consider the nature and philosophy of education.

“In the past, if students were interested in doing a project there were ways, but there wasn’t any centralized place where they could go. It was hit or miss,” Susan Stroud, the first director of the center, told The Herald in September 1986.

A year later, Stroud joined  first-years on the ground in Providence to help build the home for low-income families.

“It was a great feeling as a wall went up,” she told The Herald in September 1987.

But five years after the center opened and three years after his resignation as University president, Swearer died suddenly, shaking the Brown community. They honored him by giving the Center for Public Service the Swearer name.

“The dedication of the Brown student body, which devotes tens of thousands of hours in Providence and Rhode Island each year, is part of the legacy of Howard Swearer and is among his most precious gifts to Brown,” former President Vartan Gregorian told The Herald in November 1991.

Many students who come to the Swearer Center want to learn more about Providence, Nozaki said, and encouraging students to serve the community around Brown has been the organizing principle of many activities at the center. 

Lasting leadership 

Some programs established during the center’s first years are still active today, Nozaki said. These programs include student-led tutoring, mentoring and outdoor leadership in the community. Fellowship programs that provide funding for student-driven projects and faculty initiatives are also still in place.

Almost one month ago, new students and President Christina Paxson came together to participate in discussions as part of the University Community Academic Advising Program, a pre-orientation program focused on students who want public service to be a main component of their next four years.

Students asked “incredible” questions about the school and the role of the president, Paxson told an audience gathered on Monday to celebrate the anniversary. “There is something magical and wonderful about the ability to integrate public service with education and research,” she said.

It was amazing “to do work that I actually cared about,” said Drew Heckman ’13 of his summer experience as a C.V. Starr Fellow. Heckman started a network for LGBTQ young people in his Nebraska hometown. The program connects high school students with older members of the LGBTQcommunity, giving students a chance to meet people who are open about their sexuality.

Just the idea that people in Nebraska can be comfortable in their own skin makes a huge impact on the students in the program, Heckman said. “For a lot of them, this is world-changing,” he said.

The C.V. Starr Fellowship is a 15-month fellowship that gives students the training and resources to enact their ideas in social innovation for public service, according to the fellowship website. The center was originally founded on a grant from the C.V. Starr Foundation, which awards grants to focus on service and philanthropy. 

Swearer turns silver

In celebration of the Swearer Center’s first 25 years, students, community leaders, University administrators and employees of the center gathered Monday night at the Steel Yard. Speakers included NozakiPaxson and Brent Kerman, principal of D’Abate Elementary School.

The Rhode Island Urban Debate League is a high school education program affiliated with the center and offers urban high school students the chance to find and project their voices and ideas through debate, according to the program’s website.

David Scofield ’13, a RIUDL community fellow, said “watching the confidence of the students build over time” was his favorite thing about participating in the program. Debaters are “building advocacy for their own lives,” he said.

Rafael Torres, a junior at Alvarez High School who participates in RIUDL, spoke at Monday’s celebration, asking the audience to look beyond the assumption that the league is just about arguing. 

With all these programs, the Swearer Center tries to maintain a core dedication to “the belief that universities should be engaged in the social issues of their time” and that community engagement is central to the Brown education, Nozaki said. These reflect the important aspects of President Swearer’s vision for the center.

Nozaki said he was excited by discussions with Paxson centering on “public engagement and social impact.” Her background seems to line up with the mission of the center, Nozaki said, adding that he cannot wait to plan for the future.

But Nozaki said that in the 25 years the Swearer Center has been in existence, the directors have aimed to keep the path of the center true to its namesake’s vision. This may mean maintaining the enthusiasm that characterized the first class to be a part of the center. 

“It’s great to see the community of Brown working with the community of Providence,” StephanieWaecker ’91 told The Herald in 1987. “I can’t wait to go back to my dorm and say, ‘I built a house today.’”

— With additional reporting by Jordan Hendricks