Moving to suburban Carpentersville from Mexico when she was 15, Maria Torres became involved in fighting for the rights of people like herself: undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Growing up as the son of executive directors in the Salvation Army, Tom Babbitt knew he also wanted a career path where he could assist others with basic human needs such as food, water and housing.
Both found an academic home at NIU in the Community Leadership and Civic Engagement major, which develops students into problem solvers, organizers and social activists.
“I’ve been relatively fortunate in my life, and many have not been so fortunate. My purpose in life is to help as many people as I can,” said Babbitt, a junior from Pennsylvania. “If you’re someone who wants to make a better world – a better place for people to live – or to engage in your community, this program is for you.”
Launched in the fall of 2011 through NIU’s Center for NGO Leadership and Development, the CLCE major prepares students for a variety of careers or graduate school with coursework and service-learning activities that combine their passion for public service with academic interests.
Thanks to an anonymous donor, $500 scholarships will be awarded to six new CLCE majors next fall. (Candidates must be new to NIU or returning to the university after having left in good standing within the last three years.)
One-of-a-kind in Illinois and among only a select few in the United States, the interdisciplinary program exposes its students to a wide variety of topics offered by departments ranging from anthropology and history to economics and political science.
Service-learning opportunities allow students to apply the concepts and theories shared in the classroom to practical situations in the real-world.
For Torres, who already had experience in grassroots organizing, advocacy efforts and lobbying through involvement with the DREAM Act, the major seemed “specifically designed for me.”
“I originally was pursuing a history major with teaching certification,” she said. “But I had always seen myself working in the community, helping the immigrant community find access to better resources, and after some research, teaching was not the right fit.”
When she “stumbled into the CLCE/NGOLD office one day,” her heart was stirred.
“CLCE is a very hands-on major. You actually have the opportunity to intern, volunteer and work with not-for-profit organizations as part of the coursework,” Torres said. “At times, the major is very challenging. You have to put in a lot of hours and a lot of work to really make the projects stay afloat and to succeed in whatever goal you’re pursuing.”
Babbitt, who holds an associate’s degree from his home state and had worked for about 18 months as the assistant director of the YMCA’s Camp Benson in Mount Carroll, Ill., decided that the CLCE major offered the perfect way to return to college.
“I like that it’s interdisciplinary. I can take classes in sociology and public administration and psychology and education and really tailor the degree to what I want to do,” he said. “I’ve had a couple psychology courses – political psychology, educational psychology – and marketing classes for some of the business aspects of social services. I see a lot of overlap.”
Nancy Castle, acting director of the NGOLD center, said graduates in the program will find endless opportunities within their reach.
Parents need not worry that their children are pursuing fields with no paychecks, she said: A recent study showed that jobs in the sector are growing at a rate higher than 2 percent over the last 10 years while for-profit jobs declined by 0.6 percent per year during the same decade.
“The nonprofit sector is one of the fastest growing job sectors in the United States. One out of every 10 workers works for a nonprofit, ranging from small start-ups to large organizations with multimillion dollar budgets,” Castle said.
“When for-profit businesses lost 3.7 percent of their jobs during the 2007-2009 recession, nonprofit jobs increased by 1.9 percent. And this trend is predicted to maintain,” she added. “In other words, there are jobs in the nonprofit sector. Hiring is predicted over the next decade to include program staff, fundraisers and communications specialists.”
Babbitt believes he and his classmates are getting a good foundation.
“If you want to counsel, you can counsel. If you want to work at a food bank, you can work at a food bank. If you want to become a community organizer, you can become a community organizer,” he said. “This is a good gateway.”
Torres had job offers before she graduated from NIU in December but could not take any of those positions because of her immigration status. She recently received a work permit from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, however, and is currently interviewing for a job at a non-profit in Aurora.
She is understandably eager for her career to begin.
“Most of the time, you’ll find organizations that you actually want to work for, and it becomes a way of life. It doesn’t feel like a job. I understand the struggles, and I truly believe that people have power. You just need to organize them,” Torres said. “I’m very lucky to have found the CLCE major.”
For more information on the CLCE major, call (815) 753-4410 or email [email protected].