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Leaders meet for community summit

Aaron Steiner | Monday, March 5, 2007

Student leaders from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s, Holy Cross and Indiana University-South Bend joined forces with civic and professional leaders from the South Bend-Mishawaka community Friday to discuss poor communication between the groups – a meeting that student body president Lizzi Shappell said has “never happened before.”

To address one of the Shappell administration’s primary goals – improving community relations – student government members organized a Community Summit to encourage discussion about the “strained” relationship between college students and community members.

Held at Notre Dame Downtown, offices for the University’s community relations department, the meeting drew representatives from local organizations including both the South Bend and Mishawaka mayor’s offices, Downtown South Bend, Inc. and the South Bend Common Council.

The most important objective achieved – and the summit’s primary goal – was relationship building, Shappell said.

“Never before had that variety of student and community constituencies been in the same room to start these conversations,” she said.

Shappell said student participants will be debriefed and follow-up meetings will be arranged for certain possible initiatives – a starting point for future work.

“We will not see all of the initiatives discussed at the summit achieved before I graduate,” Shappell said. “However, that was not my intention. The summit’s goal was to start the conversation.”

Because there is nothing “centralized” between the groups and the four campuses, Senate Community Relations committee chair Josh Pasquesi said the discussion was crucial in helping initiate communication.

Pasquesi also said that leaders from all four campuses will select initiatives they would most like to work on and meetings will be arranged for these initiatives.

“People were very excited about the initiatives that came out of this or possibly will come out of this,” he said.

For Shappell, the summit was crucial – one of the “cornerstones of my administration,” she said.

“In just two years, we have seen a significant change in the relationship. … I am pleased how we are leaving the state of community relations for future administrations,” Shappell said. “I am optimistic about the emerging push for collaboration and more consistent communication.”

Such relationships are necessary to build on these ideas and push for such collaboration, Pasquesi said.

“Now it’s up to other to bear fruit on these initiatives,” he said.

Problems, solutions discussed

Small group discussions led by Notre Dame student leaders and a large group wrap-up session broke up the summit.

One of the main themes of discussion – poor communication between campuses and community members – generated possible solutions, including the creation of a central Web site where students could go to gather information about events and opportunities in the local area, and where community members could go to get information about events on all area campuses.

Without a specific agenda, the event generated discussion of various problems and ideas for possible solutions.

Small groups formed to discuss four topics: improving and expanding freshman initiatives, balancing service and professional opportunities for students, promoting better neighbor interactions and better integrating community members into area campuses.

Freshman initiatives

u In a small group session led by Shappell, Notre Dame senior Meghan Wons described the success of the first ever “Explore South Bend” tour offered during Freshman Orientation. Group members discussed expanding the program to the other three colleges and offering a similar program to parents. Wons is a news writer for The Observer.

u Several groups discussed the possibility of creating a South Bend student guidebook, including information from area restaurants, businesses of interest and recreational opportunities.

u A small group led by Notre Dame Pangborn senator Sheena Plamoottil talked about the possibility of sending a welcome letter to incoming freshmen and their parents from South Bend and Mishawaka community leaders.

Service and professional opportunities

u All groups debated ways to prevent “brain drain” from the larger community. Shappell said while community service is emphasized there is little emphasis on occupational opportunities in the area.

u Shappell’s small group generated the idea of bringing community businesses to career fairs at Notre Dame to promote internships and professional opportunities.

u A small group led by student body president-elect Liz Brown discussed the idea of bringing together the service groups between all area campuses to better provide services and prevent duplication.

Promoting better neighbor relations

u In Shappell’s small group, Robinson Community Learning Center volunteer Margaret Taylor described her experience in mentoring students who volunteer at the center. Mentoring provides for a two-way learning relationship, she said.

u In the wrap-up session, Wons talked about creating a forum for both students who are residing off campus and their neighbors to better educate both parties.

u Saint Mary’s student body president Susan McIlduff said in the wrap-up session that most students aren’t introduced to law enforcement officials until football weekends. Fostering better relationships between these groups and breaking stigmas between groups is essential, she said, noting that Holy Cross students recently invited some area police officers to participate in an intramural football league.

Integration of community members

u In both small group and large group settings, Taylor said Notre Dame “is not a warm and fuzzy place” for community members.

u McIlduff said in the wrap-up session that inviting community members to events put on by Notre Dame’s Student Union Board and comparable groups at other schools would promote better relations.