Since its inception in 2000, the Worcester Community Project Center (WCPC) has given students the opportunity to complete hundreds of projects, from creating a data collection tool for Habitat for Humanity and building an app for a directory of substance use and homelessness resources to developing adapted, custom-crafted weaving looms for refugee artisans from Bhutan and Nepal. Now, more than 20 years later, the center is tackling something new: giving students a global experience in a local context through the Local Latino Projects Program.
“I firmly believe that WPI students can have a global experience without ever stepping on a plane,” says Aarti Smith Madan, associate professor of Spanish and international studies. “This experience has the potential to change how they view not only [the local Latino] communities but also themselves and the United States.”
The idea for the Local Latino Projects Program came about in 2020, after WPI’s Latin American & Caribbean Studies group earned a six-figure grant from the U.S. Department of Education to build out its undergraduate curriculum, which included a focus on deepening inroads into Worcester’s Latino community. Madan used her past role as chair of the Community Impact Committee of the United Way Women’s Initiative to connect with local Latino-facing organizations to assess their needs and interest in working with WPI students, simultaneously giving students the chance to meet academic project requirements, whether through project work or in pursuit of a minor in Latin American & Caribbean Studies.
Madan shared her findings of interested organizations with WPI stakeholders and quickly connected with WCPC Director Laura Roberts. Rather than build an entirely new project center, they agreed to house the first two projects (collaborations with the Latino Education Institute and El Buen Samaritano) under the WCPC umbrella.
In addition to Madan’s hopes that the project work will help students “come to appreciate Worcester as a global city of immigrants,” Roberts adds, “I hope they gain a sense of agency and responsibility to use their time and talents to benefit the local community and that they will go on to be more community and civically engaged in their lives beyond WPI.”
If the experiences of students who worked with El Buen Samaritano—a nonprofit food pantry that has also provided clothing, housing support, translation services, immigration assistance, and other services since 1991—are anything to go by, they’re doing exactly that. Chris Cook, Janie Leung, Olivia Rockrohr, and Caleb Talley, all members of the Class of 2023, worked together to design a digital system to improve the organization’s inventory system to minimize redundancy and better record and analyze data so they could expand their services.
All four students cited the desire to get to know the Worcester community better as their primary reason for completing a project at WCPC; Rockrohr, however, sums it up best: “The whole experience made me feel more like I was part of the Worcester community instead of a student just attending WPI.”
The team members immersed themselves in working with El Buen Samaritano, completing their project work as well as assisting with the organization’s weekly food pickup and distribution. It made for an engaging, multifaceted experience, and one where even the smallest interactions had the potential to become the most memorable.
Cook, for instance, recalls that his favorite memory of working with El Buen Samaritano came from one of those pickup and distribution trips. “One day, when driving back from the Worcester County Food Bank, I had a conversation in Spanish with one of the workers about life,” he says, explaining that his work through the WCPC allowed him to improve his confidence in speaking Spanish, something he plans to continue to utilize after graduation. “It was just a really nice experience.
Learn more about EBS and see the students in action in this video: