The Social Impact Fellowship project pairs a student majoring in business and a student majoring in social work to work with a local non-profit or service organization to help them solve a problem or address a need in the larger Decorah community.
“This year we are working with CHOICE employment services in Decorah, an organization that works with adults with intellectual disabilities to help them with different employment opportunities and services such as employment counseling” explained Rachel Clennon.
“Our goal is to establish a Special Olympics event or chapter in the Decorah community or at Luther College.” Clennon believes that the importance of this project is to educate the greater Decorah community about intellectual disabilities, and make sure that they are heard, understood, involved, and included in all aspects of the community.
At the beginning of the research, the students developed a survey to assess the community’s interest in a Special Olympics event in Decorah.“The results showed that a lot of people would be interested in attending and participating in such an event. 86% of people are interested in participating, 93% of people are interested in attending that event, and our top sports were bowling, basketball and track and field,” said Clennon.
Sebastine Swamynathan and Clennon explained that the next step is to be accredited by Special Olympics Iowa as a Special Olympics college. “This could then open the door to a Special Olympics and Division III NCAA College Partnership” added Clennon.
The students will continue to work towards their goal of creating a Special Olympics event throughout the year. “We are hoping to create a Special Olympics College Club in the fall and work on official events within the school year, starting with the Norse Unity Bowl” said Swamynathan.
Faculty advisor, Brittany Cord, explained that cross-department collaboration is the “cornerstone” of this research project. “The idea that you are not only getting service-learning and hands-on learning experience in the community but that you're doing it with someone outside of your discipline, and in an area that you don’t necessarily know a lot about,” added Cord.
Britt Rhodes explained that before they started the Social Impact Fellowship, the faculty advisors for the project developed a framework that clarified the objectives, and then used professional connections to reach out to organizations and asked them to submit a project proposal.
The project not only involves students from different majors but has also provided the opportunity to work with Luther College alumni.
This year the project involved Leah Dahlquist, ‘15, who is the regional director of CHOICE employment services. According to Dahlquist, this opportunity has allowed her to come full circle, from being a student to becoming an alumni mentor and giving back to Luther by collaborating with students and professors throughout this process.
“One of the things that is great about Luther is how much our alumni give back to our students. This project is a great example of engaging the next generation of Luther alumni,” mentioned Alexandra White.
From the students' perspective, the interdisciplinary aspect of the project has provided them a richer experience and has not only impacted the project outcomes but their personal development.
“Working with someone from another discipline has been really fun and it brings to mind different aspects of a project that you would not usually think of if you are working by yourself. I have learned a lot from working with Rachel on policies, compliances, and regulations which are some things that I would not really look into in my own time,” explained Swamynathan.
The Social Impact Fellowship project is driven by Luther’s mission “to serve with distinction for the common good.”
“Campus community partnerships are really important to Luther,” explains Rhodes. “This project helps students see the difference between being in a community and genuinely being part of a community, being able to learn about a community, learn about an organization, and making a meaningful difference in the place where they call home for four years.”
“At Luther you can build strong relationships with people. Seeing Leah Dahlquist, ‘15 and Patrick Larson, ‘17 talk about their experiences at Luther and share how passionate they are about giving back to the college, you get a sense of the close campus connections and the larger Decorah community and with this project I am also able to give back,” added Swamynathan.