From IWU Magazine, Spring 2010
From Inquiry to Action
Illinois Wesleyan's ARC brews a potent mix of
student research and community involvement.
Story by NANCY (STEELE) BROKAW '71
Photos by MARC FEATHERLY
It’s Friday morning, a time when most Illinois Wesleyan students can be found in classrooms,
labs, studios and rehearsal rooms. But a few blocks west of campus, one IWU student
finds herself in the middle of a very different kind of learning environment.
Linda Ruan, a junior English-writing major, smiles with satisfaction as she watches
her college work in action: a new drop-in program for adults with developmental disabilities.
Many University students volunteer their time to worthy causes. Ruan, however, is
among a growing number who serve the local community and receive academic credit for
Through ARC, junior Linda Ruan (right) helped launch a new program for developmentally
disabled adults in Bloomington.
Illinois Wesleyan’s Action Research Center (ARC) develops projects that combine students’
research interests with the needs of non-profit community groups. One such group is
Marcfirst, which offers services and support for adults with developmental disabilities.
Many of these adults lost their jobs and recreation programs when the state slashed
human service budgets. Marcfirst, in collaboration with the Second Presbyterian Church,
enlisted ARC’s aid to help address the problem. The result: FriendsFirst, created
to provide a safe haven and social network for developmentally disabled adults who
might otherwise be sitting at home with little to do.
Ruan helped get FriendsFirst up and running. Building on work by ARC interns who came
before her, she set up a database of potential volunteers and participants. “My role
was background work,” she says, “but it’s fun to come here on Fridays and see my work
in action.” She plans to continue as a volunteer for the program after her internship
Marcfirst is one of many community organizations that have partnered with University
faculty and students through ARC. Ongoing action-research internships include researching
grant opportunities for a child welfare agency, developing a business plan to help
area organic farmers, analyzing affordable housing conditions and aiding efforts to
preserve rural waterways.
When asked to describe the center’s role in these projects, ARC Program Coordinator
Deborah Halperin says, “We get in the middle. We’re bridge-builders, dot-connectors,
In planning ARC internships, Halperin says she requests “meaty” projects, asking partner
organizations to “give us something off your wish list that you want accomplished.
Something that will help you move forward.”
“Community work is hard,” Halperin adds. “It’s not neat and tidy, not syllabus friendly.”
In fact, for Halperin’s ARC internship seminar class, students typically receive just
half of the course syllabus. As for the rest, she tells them, “Let’s see what happens.”
The unpredictability of this process can be a singular experience for students more
accustomed to the structured routine of classes, tests and papers. Also unlike typical
academic work, real people stand to benefit — or not — based on efforts they put into
their community projects.
Sikora shares ideas with ARC community partner Loretta Thirtyacre of Country Financial.
“Students are put in situations where they really have to think for themselves,” says
Jim Simeone, chair and associate professor of political science. “They learn how to
run meetings and take minutes. They learn how to write a grant. … It’s a marriage
of liberals arts education and hands-on projects.”
Simeone collaborated with Professor of Sociology Jim Sikora to launch the Action Research
Center in 2004. Prior to its creation, both professors attempted, with difficulty,
to coordinate projects with students and community organizations within their own
“There was so much outreach that needed to be done with the students,” says Simeone.
“We realized this needed to be a University program.”
From early on, Bloomington-headquartered State Farm Insurance Companies has provided
major funding for ARC, including ongoing support of a summer internship program —
part of the corporation’s “responsibility to support the communities where we live
and work,” in the words of State Farm chair/CEO and IWU alumnus Edward Rust Jr. ’72.
State Farm also lent its support to hire Halperin, who Sikora says has been a key
player in ARC’s success. With more than 20 years of experience with non-profit and
community organizations, Halperin “has the mind of a manager, and sees many angles
and levels at once,” says Sikora.
Halperin regards herself as a multi-sided matchmaker, taking, for example, the request
of a University professor and matching it with a community partner’s needs and the
right student for the job. “Students come from all years and backgrounds,” Halperin
tells potential community partners. “No matter who you’re looking for, there is probably
an IWU student for you.”
ARC partnerships often become long-term. Lyn Hruska, executive director of the American
Red Cross of the Heartland, will be getting her fourth Action Research intern this
summer. “We feel very fortunate,” she says. “The ARC program gives us access to wonderful
talent and a youthful point of view, plus deepening ties with Illinois Wesleyan. We
hope our relationship continues for many years.”
Chair and Professor of Hispanic Studies Carolyn Nadeau is also a frequent user of
ARC’s matchmaking skills. “This local field component is invaluable to students in
its own right and is also key to understanding the theoretical information we discuss
in the classroom,” she says.
The flexibility and relevance of ARC’s work impressed Elizabeth Weir ’50, a sociology
major at IWU and long-time community activist. In 2008, Weir established a fellowship
in her name that helps support students financially as they work on ARC projects with
‘It’s important, this idea of giving back,” reflects Weir. “It’s more than giving
back, it’s making friendship and connections that last a lifetime.”
Participating in the Action Research seminar gave Matt Hill ’12 a chance to receive
academic credit for helping in community projects such as a reading program for elementary
Kenny Woodard, a senior political science major, is one of two current Weir Fellows.
Among other things, Woodard works with Habitat for Humanity to develop marketing strategies
that will improve ties with churches on Bloomington’s West Side neighborhoods. His
previous service work included mentoring low-income, handicapped and first-generation
students to help them succeed in college.
“I am always astonished at the few degrees of separation between a person who has
a community project in mind and getting that project accomplished,” he says. “Once
a student begins to ask questions about community concerns, they are pointed in the
right direction [by ARC] to find the actionable answers.”
Senior Heather DeLong’s ARC journey began in a “Spanish for Social Justice” course
taught by Nadeau. ARC matched her with Habitat for Humanity to work as a translator,
interviewing Hispanic families whose houses had been built by Habitat.
For DeLong — a Hispanic studies major and international studies/music minor — the
experience was exhilarating. “To go and knock on someone’s door and ask them about
their life was a little nerve-wracking,” she says. “But we had interviews where we
just continued talking after our questions were done. We talked about their children,
their lives, our studies.”
Last summer, DeLong continued her association with ARC as an intern in the State Farm
Community Partnership Program. Each summer, 10 Illinois Wesleyan students are selected
for the program, designed to “demonstrate for emerging student leaders how for-profit
and not-for-profit organizations can align to serve the shared community,” according
to the ARC Web site. These full-time, paid interns split their workweek with three
days at State Farm and two days out in the community with not-for-profit partners.
“I haven’t seen it on other campuses with undergrads,” Sikora says of the State Farm
Partnership Program, now in its fourth year. “It’s a unique partnership of business,
not-for-profit, students, university and community.”
During her two weekly community days, DeLong continued her work at Habitat, creating
Spanish-language pamphlets and presenting a program in Spanish to potential new homeowners.
At State Farm, DeLong was assigned to a project that involved making safe-driving
videos in Spanish.
“Before, I’ve always been told what to do and how do it,” DeLong reflects. “It was
mind-boggling there. They just told me to do something. It really developed my creative
As a community education leader in State Farm’s public affairs division, Tom Laxton
has worked with many IWU students through ARC. “The thing that I’m most impressed
with,” Laxton says, “is that we thought we were working to develop leaders for tomorrow.
But the reality is that they’re making significant differences in communities today
around issues and needs that the community faces.”
Placing students in environments where they can truly make a difference is one of
Halperin’s priorities. As ARC intern and history/Spanish major Erin Bradley ’10 puts
it, “ARC interns are not just making copies or getting coffee. Deborah sees to that.
You have to have responsibilities.”
State Farm community education leader Tom Laxton discusses a new Promise Council initiative
with senior Erin Bradley and ARC Program Coordinator Deborah Halperin.
Through the Action Research Center, Bradley helped launch “Radio Latino,” an all-Spanish
weekly radio broadcast on the University’s student-run WESN 88.1 FM. When the program
first aired in 2008, there was no other Spanish-speaking media in the Bloomington-Normal
area, despite a growing Hispanic population. Bradley — who has continued her work
on the show long after her internship ended — locates and invites Spanish-speaking
guests from the community to come in for interviews.
“The whole idea of action research is so cool to me,” Bradley says. “You’re doing
research and actively helping people. I grew up in Bloomington-Normal and this really
opened my eyes and pulled me out of the Wesleyan bubble. It’s such a great way to
connect to the community.”
Through ARC, Bradley is now working to establish Promise Councils at local schools
that connect community resources to help disadvantaged students succeed.
“I thought I knew what I wanted to do after college,” says Bradley, “but now I’ve
found my life’s work. I’m applying to grad schools to get a degree in social service
administration. I now know that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Many current students and alumni report being sparked with that same sense of purpose
through their action-research experiences. As a former Community Partner intern, Heidi
Adams ’09 worked with the American Red Cross to create a community disaster education
program for renters. The experience helped influence her decision to work for Marcfirst
after graduating last year.
Among Adams’ ARC projects was a survey of graduates who had interned in the program.
“For a majority of people, it helped them with career choices,” says Adams. “They
found something they loved to do or something they didn’t want to pursue.”
Several of the ARC alumni reported that they gained more confidence in the workplace,
Adams says. As interns, they learned how to confront complex problems that arise and
how to effectively solve those problems.
As importantly, says Simeone, ARC helps students develop the skills they need to become
more engaged as “active citizens and leaders of their communities” after graduation.
For Adams, one of the most telling survey answers was a response to the question,
“What was the most valuable experience you had in the Action Research seminar?”
The response: “Learning what I was made of, mostly.”
Click here to learn more about Illinois Wesleyan’s Action Research Center.