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The Community as Classroom

By Gregg Sangillo

Maxine Davis and Justin Morgan are the inaugural recipients of the new Community-Based Research certificate.

Maxine Davis and Justin Morgan are the inaugural recipients of the new Community-Based Research certificate.

American University students certainly appreciate the advantages of living in Washington D.C. Yet there’s a flip side to the equation: The city itself—dealing with any number of 21st century educational and social challenges—benefits from the creative energy of AU students.

Community service is an integral part of college life here, and AU is taking additional steps to incorporate those values into the curriculum. Housed in the School of Public Affairs, a new Community-Based Research certificate is now offered to undergraduate students. A 15-18 credit program, it can help bridge the gap between on-site service and classroom-oriented research.

Two graduating seniors, Justin Morgan and Maxine Davis, are the inaugural recipients of the Community-Based Research certificate. They not only had the requisite coursework, but the demonstrated commitment to giving back.

“I think Maxine and Justin both have a lot to offer, and they really enriched the classroom environment,” says Jane Palmer, a professorial lecturer in SPA.

A Sincere Passion

Justin Morgan is earning his bachelor’s degree in public health, and he projects a sincere passion for the subject. He served as the first president of the student-run Public Health Association on campus. “It was really cool to bring something into fruition, watch it grow, and be a part of that process. I think the organization is only going to get bigger from here,” he says.

At AU, Morgan was also a research assistant with the Center on Health, Risk, and Society in the College of Arts and Sciences. For his senior capstone, he worked with Green Door Behavioral Health, an organization that helps D.C. area individuals struggling with substance abuse and mental illness.

He studied abroad in London, where he learned about European health care systems. Examining health care practices on the other side of the Atlantic was eye opening for Morgan. “It’s very frustrating as an American to go over there and learn about health systems that work,” he says. “In other countries, health care is accepted as a fundamental right. We’re not there yet in the U.S.”

To some extent, Morgan waded into the battle for quality health care in Washington. While interning with the Center for American Progress, he gathered with others on the steps of the Supreme Court soon after justices upheld the Affordable Care Act, and his picture ended up on the cover of The Washington Post.

More recently, he worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department and assisted with the administration’s efforts to eradicate veterans’ homelessness. After graduation, Morgan will work as a research assistant in the health policy center at the Urban Institute, a respected, nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

Mentorship and Service

In fact, Morgan’s academic experience here foreshadows future service. He was in the Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars (FDDS) program, which compels graduates to help underserved populations. Students in FDDS meet high-powered leaders, but Morgan explains how it’s less about taking selfies and more about having meaningful conversations. “The photo is nice; I can send it to my mom. But I want to find out from Sonia Sotomayor how she overcame. I want to find out from Colin Powell, ‘How do you navigate D.C. as a black male?’”

Morgan expresses gratitude towards program director Larry Thomas, as well as fellow FDDS students with whom he has developed strong bonds. “It always felt like a family,” he says.

When talking about mentorship, Morgan naturally credits his immediate family in Ellicott City, Md. His cardiologist-father has served struggling communities in West Baltimore, and Morgan learned about racial health disparities through his dad’s work. Morgan’s mother earned her Ph.D. in pharmacology and is now an assistant dean at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Morgan initially considered following in his father’s footsteps to become a doctor, but he gravitated away from pre-med and towards health policy. “I think the attraction to public health is about impact, and having the greatest amount of impact on the greatest number of people.”

In AU’s Backyard

Maxine Davis grew up right here in Northwest Washington, D.C., attending Benjamin Banneker high school on Euclid Street. Public service was a family tradition— something you just did.

“My mom and grandmother were always involved in helping the community in some aspect,” says Davis. “I feel like it’s been ingrained in me. I was in Girl Scouts, so I think that’s really what started it.”

Through a high school program, Davis started working at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 10th grade, and she still occasionally works there now. Given the gravity of the subject matter, she’s mindful of the museum’s important mission.

“I am always learning something new, or I’m teaching something to somebody else. It has its moments where it is a very sad history, but it’s so very necessary and relevant,” she says.

Another thing Davis learned about during her formative years? College, actually. Her mom was a nontraditional student at the University of the District of Columbia, and Davis went to class with her a few times.

“I was slowly being exposed to it,” she says, “and it was just increasingly getting more interesting.”

Here and Abroad

In selecting a college, AU proved to be an attractive option: The school helped with a combination of financial aid and grants and waived her application fee. She came in undecided on a major, but her work at the Holocaust Museum led her to international studies at the School of International Service.

She double majored in public health, and that work became a catalyst for this Community-Based Research certificate. Through her public health capstone, she worked with a local home for senior citizens.

As part of a peer health exchange, she was on the leadership council for sexually transmitted infections, and she taught workshops on sex ed to ninth graders throughout the city. She’s also been president of her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc.

In her junior year, Davis studied in a public health program in India. Even with its fast-growing economy, she discovered hardships afflicting a still-developing nation.

“Not everybody has running water. Not everybody has clean running water,” she says. “The gender differences when it comes to health are extreme.”

She also did an Alternative Breaks program in Haiti, and she makes it a habit to visit a new place every year.

The New Certificate

Palmer is director of the Community-Based Research Scholars program, which is separate from the certificate and launched in 2014. With this new certificate, “we wanted a way for other AU students, not in the scholars program, to have an opportunity to do community-based research,” she says.

This semester Davis and Morgan were in Palmer’s community-based research course. The class partnered with LAYC Career Academy, a Columbia Heights-based public charter school that wanted help with enrollment challenges.

Right now, Palmer is trying to get the word out for other undergraduates to pursue the certificate. “The program is very localized, because D.C. is our classroom. But even if they are in SIS, there’s still plenty to learn in this program that’s applicable elsewhere,” she says. “The issues that affect people living in D.C. are global issues.”