HECUA at 50

Carleton and HECUA: A Shared Commitment to Civic Engagement

As we celebrate HECUA’s 50 years as an organization, we are highlighting the institutions who were part of our founding, and who remain integral to our mission to this day. Throughout the next year, we will be featuring these founding institutions that created the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA) and who continue to serve as consortium members today. This second founding institution feature is all about Carleton College. 

By Ellie Garran, Carleton College

As HECUA’s programs have evolved over the past 50 years, and as Carleton’s own civic engagement work has expanded, the relationship between the two institutions has been a constant. Long before the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE) or its predecessor Acting in the Community Together (ACT) existed at Carleton, and just as Carleton’s Off-Campus Studies programs were taking hold, the campus supported experiential, off-campus learning for social change as a founding member of the HECUA consortium. 

Thanks in part to the contributions of renowned faculty member Paul Wellstone as a founding board member, Carls have participated in HECUA programs, internationally and locally, from Crisis Colony in the Twin Cities in 1970 to Culture and the Environment in New Zealand in 2019. While opportunities for community and civic engagement and off-campus studies have grown at Carleton over those years, students have always had a deep appreciation for the ways that HECUA’s model of experiential learning supplemented their Carleton education.

Sinda Nichols, an ‘05 Carleton alum and current HECUA board member, credits her HECUA program with setting her on the career trajectory that ultimately led her to take on leadership of Carleton’s Center for Community and Civic Engagement last year. 

Sinda participated in The Scandinavian Urban Studies Term taught by Phil Sandro in 2003, which focused on immigration and social justice in Norway, Sweden, and Estonia. “Experiential learning became really important to me after that program,” she says, “and when I came back to Carleton, I actively pursued finding classes and spaces where I could do that kind of learning. And certainly then after leaving college, it remained important to me. I have no doubt that it’s shaped the kind of path that I’ve gone down.”

Amos Morsby ‘78 participated in South American Urban Studies term (SAUS) in Colombia in 1977, and found his experience adventurous in a way that might be unique to education in that decade. He credits the program leader, Chip Peterson, with ensuring a rigorous educational experience in sometimes challenging circumstances. “He always found a lecture for us,” he says. “It didn’t matter. We were drowning in a monsoon, ready to fall off the edge of cliffs. If there was a national strike in Colombia and the streets were lined with guerrillas, we still had a lecture to go to.” While the field of study abroad has since changed and programs are more structured now, this reflects the HECUA commitment to fully engaged place-based learning.

Richa Sharma ‘14 participated in Community Internships in Latin America in Ecuador in 2013, and found it tailored to her interests. “I loved that it incorporated internships within it,” she says. “My interest was in doing refugee work and they had the perfect match for me. I worked for an organization called Asylum Access Ecuador, and by teaching refugees English I was able to learn about the refugee and immigrant situation within Ecuador and a little bit more of the geopolitical situation.”

Carleton students have also participated in HECUA’s domestic programs since its inception. Christi Conkling ‘09 took part in Inequality in America in the Twin Cities in 2008, and says, “it was a really good opportunity to further some of the work that I was doing in Ed Studies classes in a much more practical way than was offered at Carleton.”

By the time Christi was a student at Carleton, the campus outreach work started in 1985 had greatly expanded, and a few years later, in 2011, it was formalized as the CCCE.

Everyone interviewed expressed their gratitude for the ways their HECUA program expanded their academic knowledge and empathy. “Pretty much every day I saw something I had never seen before,” Amos says. “You see that life doesn’t begin and end in this country.”

Christi reflects, “I think that semester helped me have more empathy for folks who had different experiences than myself and have a bit of grounding that I didn’t have with just the academic pieces.”

“It was very rigorous,” Sinda says, “but rigorous in a different way than anything I’d experienced before because the rigor was around not the volume of things we had to read at night, but how we had to connect the dots between real things happening in the places where we were and the texts we were reading.”

Marcus Young 楊墨, a ’91 Carleton alum, is the Program Director of HECUA’s Art for Social Change program based in the Twin Cities. Through this program, students explore what art is, who it serves and how it is connected to imagination, creative practice, and social transformation.

“Carleton helped me realize several things about learning,” Marcus says. “There is no good learning without self-discovery and self-acceptance. Learning is best shared and realized with social purpose. Creating oneself through learning is creativity and art. These are things I continue to work on at HECUA as the Program Director of Art for Social Change.”

Helena Kaufman, Carleton’s Director of Off-Campus Studies and a former longtime HECUA board member, says that her long relationship with HECUA has been “foundational to my philosophy as a study abroad professional” in terms of experiential learning and education for social justice.

She describes the benefits of the “very unique program structure that [HECUA] developed, with the deep involvement of the programs with the community,” explaining the student experience as a “circular movement between theory, experience, reflection and integration.”

Helena describes her experience on the HECUA board as an ongoing process of collectively “thinking more deeply about this model, building and working with it and really trying to keep it alive, keep it fresh.”

Having been a Carleton staff member for more than two decades, and involved with HECUA for almost that long, Helena has found that, over her tenure, Carleton has become more and more aligned with HECUA’s principles. “I think the direction that Carleton’s been following for the last almost twenty years I’ve been here, toward academic civic engagement and general social justice, I think that’s where the goals have very much aligned with HECUA,” she says.

Since her HECUA program in 2003, Sinda has been grateful to have had “little touch points with HECUA” over the course of her career. In her previous role at Campus Compact, she frequently worked with HECUA staff, who she says “have always been very committed to and able to bring a pretty critical lens to the work in ways that have deepened the conversations that we’re having together.”

Sinda came back to Carleton in 2020, and joined the HECUA board a few months later. “It does really mean a lot to me to go full circle and be able to contribute in that role at this time,” she says.

Bev Nagel, former Dean of the College at Carleton, appreciates how HECUA programs have provided unique and valuable learning experiences for multiple generations of Carleton students. “I visited the HECUA program in Colombia as a faculty member,” she says, “before moving into the administration. I was deeply impressed then, and still am, with the kind of learning experiences offered and the deep reflection that the program fostered. Students learned from their faculty and peers and also – importantly – came to appreciate the extraordinarily valuable wisdom and insight of the diverse people in the communities where they were embedded, and how very much they could learn from the members of these communities. HECUA embraced this kind of learning and this philosophy well before many in higher education did.”

Thank you, Carleton College, for your five decades of support for HECUA. You can learn more about HECUA’s programs here


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