“This is intense. This is demanding,” the Project Manager confessed to the sweaty classroom full of baffled but intrigued undergraduates in August 2012. She exchanged a knowing look with her co-manager. “But we think we can do it.” 

The Project Managers had just explained our daunting task: to generate a pre-feasibility study for the construction of two hydroelectric dams in the impoverished Caribbean nation of Haiti.

It was a dare. A challenge. The gauntlet was thrown down. And I, along with a dozen other undergraduates, picked it up.

It was the first day of a section of UIUC’s service-learning classes, LINC, or “Learning in Community.” Offered through the College of Engineering, but open to all undergraduates, LINC partners a class of students with a local or international nonprofit to work together on a project for a semester, and sometimes beyond.

The partner for this particular section, Haiti Infrastructure and Development (HID), is a new NGO headed by UIUC alum Steve Loken. The architect founded the NGO after he visited post-earthquake Haiti to reduce poverty through infrastructural projects.  He reached out to his Alma Mater for help to compile the research necessary to write a pre-feasibility study. Our LINC class identified several research topics — technical, political, economic, environmental, and social — and got to work.

Not all LINC partners have such ambitious goals. In fact, partners usually maintain several projects over many semesters, picked up by new undergraduates each semester. Many of the nonprofits are local in scale. C-U at Home tackles homelessness a stone’s throw away from campus. The University YMCA maintains long-term “green” projects, such as bike rentals and building a greenhouse garden on its roof. Bridge to China designed a bridge for Allerton Park while it prepares for a larger bridge to be built in rural China.

“I really like having both a local-regional focus, in addition to an international focus,” said LINC co-director Valerie Werpetinski. “We definitely are trying to have an impact in our backyard, but we’re also trying to expand students’ views and to connect with partners around the world.”

The variety of projects attract a variety of students. The Illinois Green Business Association has a section studying implementation of green business practices, while Avicenna Community Health Center pushes pre-health students to understand the plight of the uninsured right in Champaign-Urbana. Students interested in toxicology and medicine collaborate with the prestigious Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant to promote public education about safe disposal of environmentally dangerous medications.

“It gives you the experience of an internship, with a nonprofit that you get to choose,” said one Project Manager.

LINC began in 2003, when Jon Dolle, an engineering undergraduate student, learned about Purdue’s Engineering Projects In Community Service (EPICS). Inspired, he took the idea to engineering professor and current co-director of LINC, Bruce Litchfield. LINC, modeled after Purdue’s EPICS courses, began in the spring of 2003, with one section partnered with Habitat for Humanity. In Fall 2012, LINC had seventeen partners; for the Spring of 2013, it has increased to nineteen. Haiti Infrastructure and Development (HID) will enter its second semester, alongside many other long-standing partners.

LINC has faced several challenges. Five semesters after its initiation, funding cuts forced LINC to put its projects on pause. In 2010, it re-started on a zero budget, which limited some of its potential. Navigating the priorities of many varied stakeholders can prove to be frustrating.

Undergraduates, accustomed to straightforward lectures, exams, and papers, are faced with ambiguity in the fluid goals and desires of versatile nonprofits. When I complained good-naturedly to one of my project managers, engineering graduate student Cheryl Weyant, she nodded, but then smiled knowingly: “Yes. LINC is more like the real world.”

“I like it because we’re doing something that’s unique, and I’m not sure anybody else is running a program quite this complex,” said Werpetinski.

LINC is a pioneer course for academia. While UIUC’s corporate and private partnerships are strong, the university lags in its partnerships with nonprofits. Today, nonprofits both provide essential services while innovating socially conscious ways to improve the world. The nonprofit world stands to benefit from cooperating with the brilliant minds of UIUC.

Personally, I’ve been inspired by meeting so many enthusiastic people from around the world. The Haiti Infrastructure and Development section brought together students from Ireland, London, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, and the U.S., as well as several fields of engineering and students from economics, anthropology, and advertising. Several enrolled because they had visited Haiti before, while others had academic or professional interests in development, poverty reduction, and hydropower. There are few venues that encourage such strong interdisciplinary (and international) dialogue, let alone collaboration on a project of social significance.

Our research on Haiti pushed us to grow in previously unimaginable ways. Thousands of miles away from the actual site, we conducted Environmental and Social Impact Assessments, got a crash course in ArcGIS, learned conference call etiquette and professional writing skills. We ran into problems trying to calculate critical numbers, such as dam height and power output, coming to appreciate the staggering complexity of projects like these. “I had no idea a project could get so complicated,” said an engineer after perusing some of the not-so-pleasant environmental and social impacts.

A class favorite was the endangered Robber Frog, whose habitat would be threatened by dam construction. Economic and social concerns, such as dislocating farmers, were also on the list.

I was in two sections of LINC this past Fall semester: Avicenna Community Health and Haiti Infrastructure and Development. For me, the most refreshing thing about LINC has been working with a team of people who are passionate about a common goal, and dedicated to achieving it.

LINC is designed to be an all-around win situation for all the stakeholders. Undergrads, managers, partners, and directors alike regard LINC as a transformative experience. While some are looking to break up the monotony of their schedules, many look for real-world experience pertinent to their career plans. Some consider themselves idealists, looking for ways to “save the world.”

“This is a real project with real people. I actually care about this class,” said another student.

Interested in becoming a partner? Enrolling? Check out LINC’s website.