"I realized that outside our Northwestern bubble there are a lot of problems facing our community and our society. I wanted to bring change. I wanted to contribute and feel like I'm making a difference"
Michael Alperin: Improving Communities through Education
Although senior Michael Alperin started college as a "math and science guy," he made a 180-degree turn during the "life-changing sophomore year" he transferred to SESP to study social policy. As a counselor on the Freshman Urban Program, he saw firsthand the inequality facing society, and he knew he wanted to enact broad social change.
"I realized that outside our Northwestern bubble there are a lot of problems facing our community and our society. I wanted to bring change. I wanted to contribute and feel like I'm making a difference," says Alperin.
At Northwestern he makes a big difference as co-chair of the massive Northwestern Community Development Corps (NCDC), the campus-wide umbrella organization for direct service to the community. More than 750 students participate in NCDC on a regular basis — most of them volunteering weekly at 35 sites, including homeless shelters, after-school programs and nursing homes. The organization also sponsors advocacy, education and events related to social justice and community development.
Alperin was also a founding member and last year served as the co-director of the Roosevelt Institute, a student-led think tank that seeks to enact progressive public policy. He provided tools and resources to help students form centers on environmental policy and economic inequality.
Once he and other NCDC members learned that some Northwestern employees were living in shelters and couldn't afford housing, he helped found and co-chair the Northwestern Living Wage Campaign, another NCDC initiative. "Even on our own campus there are huge problems, and as students we have a powerful voice. We wanted to show the administration that this is a problem," he says. The campaign, which now has a working group with the administration, has held a rally of 400 students and secured community benefits for workers.
Last year as NCDC education co-chair he worked to establish informal education discussions to supplement the organization's Undergraduate Lecture Series on Race, Poverty and Inequality. Informal discussions on topics such as homelessness enable students to have meaningful conversation and think for themselves, he says.
"Part of what I've learned through SESP is that a powerful tool is educating other people," says Alperin, who zeroes in on education as a means for overcoming social disparities. "The School's core comes back to broadly improving education, and education is fundamental to improving the community." he says.
Connections between SESP and NCDC abound. To begin with, NCDC draws on principles from SESP associate research professor Jody Kretzmann's Asset-Based Community Development Institute (ABCD), according to Alperin. "We train site leaders with ABCD in mind. We try to look for assets and build mutually beneficial relationships — not top-down but working with the community."
In addition, most NCDC student volunteers come from SESP, he notes. "SESP has a small student body but an extremely engaged student body, the most socially conscious student body. A lot of people want to make a tangible difference, so it's easy to find students to get involved."
As he looks toward his future, education reform is his goal — through research, public policy and advocacy. "I would just like to improve schools. Knowledge is power, and if we can improve education, we can improve society. … To me, education reform is the answer," he says. "My interests revolve around seeing more people get a Northwestern-caliber education. It will improve America as a whole."
Along with other mentors, he credits assistant professor Michelle Reininger for his focus on education policy and his grandfather for inspiring him to help other people. "I come from a family involved in social justice," he says.
But even though he's serious about his activities and working hard to create change, he also sees the value in less weighty pursuits like being a Red Sox fan and a funloving friend. "What's also important is stepping back and enjoying these four years. I could not have had a better experience," he says.