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Making connections

Photo by: Provided

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Katie Shumway, who is the Community Learning Lab (CLL) Director within the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois. If you’re not familiar, the CLL is a space for students to experience real-time learning, by taking on projects for local not-for-profits. Katie, along with her team, works with over 400 local partners, including Developmental Services Center, Crisis Nursery, Carle, Champaign Unit 4 School District, Eastern Illinois Food Bank and many others.

Project requests are submitted through an online application, and then the CLL makes matches between the not-for-profit agencies and the students. For example, if DSC submits a project that involves program evaluation and there is an upcoming class on program evaluation, that could be a potential match.

“One of the benefits for students is that they learn valuable soft skills that will help them later on in their careers,” Shumway explained. “While participating in a project with a community not-for-profit, they experience the communication dynamics that can occur when working in a real job. For example, when someone doesn’t reply to an email, they learn to address that challenge by following up. Then, when they encounter this later in life, they can trace it back to their service learning project. It gives them confidence because they have real experience, and they know what they’re capable of.”

The CLL has assisted DSC with several projects in recent years, including matching up interns to work for a semester at DSC, volunteers for the Illinois Marathon and C-U Oktoberfest, providing speakers for staff training on special topics such as hoarding and student-led donation drives to collect pantry and hygiene items for people who receive DSC services. Students have also arranged a Parent Resource Fair in Rantoul and conducted research for the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club.

In February, the CLL hosted a Grant-A-Thon and invited both students and community partners to take part in an all-day learning opportunity centering around grant writing. The day involved a keynote speaker, group mentors from area not-for-profits and guest panelists from local funders, including the Champaign County Mental Health Board, the Urbana Public Arts Council and the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois. Throughout the day, the students participated in breakout sessions with group mentors and had the opportunity to write a grant with their group. This was the third year for the Grant-A-Thon.

One thing that Shumway intends to do more of in the future is host additional Thank You Workshops, such as the one they hosted in April for their community partners. “I noticed that there were many requests centered around media and that we could meet a large need by hosting one event and inviting all of our partners here,” Shumway said. Mike Yao, UI associate professor of digital media, was the keynote speaker. The workshops are intended to serve as a way to thank local not-for-profits for the work they do in the community. You can learn more about the Community Learning Lab at