From a young age, Melissa De Almeida was determined to become a teacher in the same Spanish and Portuguese working-class neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, where she grew up. “It’s always been my plan,” she says. “I find it important to have a teacher who looks like you, who comes from the same background as you, sometimes even speaks the same language as you. It can make a big difference in your education.”
Wanting to make an impact made her college choice an easy one: Montclair State University offers the renowned Red Hawks Rising Teacher Academy, a pipeline for diverse teachers and a nationally recognized program addressing the shortage of teachers of color.
This partnership with Newark Public Schools and the American Federation of Teachers is among the many ways that Montclair faculty, students and partners are working to make the world a better place – tackling such wide-ranging issues as unequal educational and health outcomes, environmental and social justice, poverty, and the catastrophic effects of climate change.
The work defines, as President Jonathan Koppell often says in his public remarks, what it means to be a university with a public purpose, one that not only creates transformational opportunities for students, but also partners with communities to find solutions to pressing problems.
“To do that, however, we must lay down deep roots, be active participants, and demonstrate commitment to lasting, sustainable change,” he said when announcing “One Square Mile” – a new collaboration with Paterson Public Schools and supported by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
“Montclair demands a lot of us. I don’t think it’s a place where people sit with easy answers. I think it’s a place where people want to question and think critically about what’s going on in the world,” says Eve Schaenen, executive director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, her observations among the dozens gathered this academic year on what it means to be a public-serving university.
Just a sampling of the work shows faculty and students collaborating on efforts to keep New Jersey’s water safe and mitigate flooding; working on issues of social justice and eliminating racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality; coordinating prevention of substance abuse, HIV and AIDS ;and tackling human trafficking.
“Our students love to connect the theory to practice to see what it’s like to do this work out in the real world. They get excited about it and that excitement also gets transferred to the community. I think it’s a great marriage,” says Bryan Murdock, associate vice president for Community Partnerships.
Phetlavanh Sinpaseuth, left, an international student from Laos, is working on her master’s degree in the Department of Social Work and Child Advocacy. She is an intern in the Global Center on Human Trafficking and plans to apply what she learns back home. “We do see that there’s a need to bring attention to this horrific exploitation of human beings,” says Justice Studies Associate Professor Daniela Peterka-Benton, right, the center’s academic director.
“It aligns with who I am as a person,” says Professor Pauline Garcia-Reid. “I come from a family of teachers, preachers and public servants. I feel it is important in terms of my ability to engage and provide a difference in the world.”
Garcia-Reid collaborates with her husband, Robert Reid – both professors in Family Science and Human Development – on the Communities Organizing for Prevention and Empowerment or C.O.P.E. Initiative, which has impacted 40,000 adolescents and young adults in Paterson.
Montclair students assist in classes aimed at preventing substance abuse and the spread of HIV among African American and Latino youths. “For me, it’s important because the kids are often in an environment where they see people who are struggling. We’re the ones telling them what they’re seeing, why they’re seeing it, and how they can move past it or surpass their environment,” says Alicia Rivera ’22.
In Public Health, the work is wide-ranging, including assisting New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy on the maternal mortality crisis. During the pandemic, students and faculty were on the front lines of testing and vaccinations.
“We don’t just go to communities and say we’re going to make you better or we’re going to fix this or fix that,” says Public Health Chairperson Lisa Lieberman. “We work in partnership with organizations, elected officials, members of the community, on all of the things that impact the way people live and what they have access to.”
Numerous faculty members are often turned-to voices on these important issues. “Seeing the world in high definition” was the approach taken by Economics Professor Luis Portes in delivering his perspective to media questions on the economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis. “We need some shelves on where to stack our understanding of what’s happening to us,” he says.
Justice Studies Professor Jason Williams, an activist-scholar, teams with student researchers to examine the experiences of young Black men with the American criminal justice system and the resulting impact on them and their families. “We operate within the ethos of needing to give back to the community and needing to be not only collaborative on campus amongst each other but with community-based partners,” Williams says.
Biology Professor Meiyin Wu, an aquatic ecologist, runs the only state-certified testing lab for cyanotoxins in New Jersey and leads teams throughout New Jersey’s freshwater lakes to regularly monitor algal blooms that make swimming, boating, fishing – and drinking – unsafe. “Science is our magic,” she says. “We use our science as a tool to really go out there to work with the public … to identify the sources of pollution and to help them identify solutions to make their living conditions better.”
Working with state scientists and environmental advocates, Montclair faculty and students are also helping solve New Jersey’s multimillion-dollar issue of protecting housing and infrastructure that may be threatened by a rising sea and flooding rivers during storms.
“What I think is important to keep in mind is that we are here not only to do good science and contribute to solving some of some important challenges that we have, contributing our grain of sand, but also mentoring those students who come with new energy,” says Earth and Environmental Studies Associate Professor Jorge Lorenzo Trueba.
Recently, Montclair State University announced an educational role with Paterson Public Schools (thanks to a $5 million donation from alumnus and Paterson native Chuck Muth ’77 and his wife, Laura) in the revival of historic Hinchliffe Stadium, one of baseball’s crown jewels and one of America’s last remaining Negro League ballparks.
Also in Paterson, the “One Square Mile” initiative will see Montclair students and faculty working with Paterson Public Schools in providing services including free healthy meals, health care, academic support, mental health counseling and referrals at Eastside High School. It’s a reflection, Koppell says, of the mission that Montclair assigns itself.
“It has to start with asking questions: What does your community want to be? Where are the needs that are unmet? What are the aspirations that are unfulfilled? And how can we be an instrument to help fulfill those aspirations? … It isn’t about what we want to be, although it is a pathway to us fulfilling our potential.”
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