San Diego is nicknamed “America’s Finest City,” but it’s certainly not immune to problems that are faced elsewhere. Just ask San Diego residents and University of San Diego Kroc School of Peace Studies master’s program students Nicky Riordan, Alyssa Patterson and Adam Schwab.
Riordan (pictured, right) worked as a case manager for Feeding America San Diego during a summer-long internship. Her main role was to relate valuable assistance and information about its CalFresh Outreach Program for hungry San Diego residents.
“San Diego is one of the most underutilized cities for the CalFresh program,” said Riordan, a native of Ramona, Calif. “I’ve been out there on the ground, helping people fill out documents, walking them through the process and advocating for people who come to our mobile pantries, helping them apply for CalFresh benefits.”
Patterson has been a west region intern for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) this summer. Her role as an assistant project coordinator ranged from common office tasks to speaking at events about Fair Trade and water sanitation projects.
“I spoke to more than 200 youth at Camp Emmaus in Julian about CRS projects and was amazed to see how enthusiastic they were about getting involved,” Patterson said. “I also took a huge part in planning the CRS Water Simulation activity at Steubenville San Diego (held in July at USD) where we gave youth the opportunity to simulate how difficult it is for people in Third World countries to attain and carry water back to their families.”
Schwab spent his summer as a research assistant for project planning with the San Diego Interfaith Disaster Relief Council and its Red Cross Spiritual Care internship.
“I’ve collected data on more than 1,100 religious organizations across San Diego,” he explained. “I’ve put together a database of these organizations in the event of a natural disaster or emergency so that families will know where to turn based not only on their practical needs, but also their spiritual needs.”
Schwab (pictured, left) said the database remains a work in progress, but he’s found it to be rewarding work. “I have spoken with many individuals from a variety of religious traditions who have been affected by fires in recent years and I’ve asked them about what San Diego could have done better to help them through such difficult times and what could have been done to help with their spirituality in a moment of crisis.”
In each instance, these budding peace builders are finding opportunities to put their passion to work in their own hometown.
“I’ve always felt most drawn to local issues because I see them on a daily basis and they affect my community, my home,” Patterson said. “My work this summer has definitely shown me all of the different ways I can apply my education and skills to my own community. I feel very passionate about issues this city faces, homelessness in particular, because I grew up here. I don’t have to walk very far out of my apartment or off campus before I run into a homeless person. Although it may be less exotic, there is certainly great need on the streets of San Diego. People can have as much impact here as anywhere else.”
Riordan, Patterson and Schwab aren’t alone. They’re among seven of 18 students from KSPS’ 17-month master’s degree track who’ve done an internship in San Diego this summer. Ashleigh Becker worked for YALLA (Youth and Leaders Living Actively), Kassi Grunder assisted with the local office of the National Conflict Resolution Center, Ananicola Allegra Sonza interned with Ronald McDonald House Charities and Heidi Van Denburgh worked for Jewish Family Services of San Diego.
Outside of San Diego, 11 other KSPS students also fulfilled their internship requirement this summer in Pine Ridge, S.D., Washington D.C., and internationally in Uganda, India, Switzerland, Israel, Ethiopia, Moldova and Morocco.
Kroc School of Peace Studies Associate Dean Lee Ann Otto said a student’s internship, regardless of where students go, is a critical component.
“It academically links theory and practice by applying what they’ve learned in the classroom,” Otto said. “The internship reinforces what students might want to do, but, after 10 weeks, they might also find it’s not what they want to do. This helps them better identify where they want to focus their attention.”
She added that those doing internships in San Diego “remind all of us that a lot of the issues we talk about aren’t just international issues. They have an impact locally in the community and it’s important to understand that.”
Riordan’s focus is human rights. While she initially thought about going overseas, she’s found her opportunity to work and educate locally on behalf of Feeding America San Diego has been a good fit.
“It struck a chord with me,” she said. ‘The internship allowed me to get a taste of being on the ground and being an advocate about the importance of a basic human right.”
She participated in a Hunger Action Day event in Sacramento, presenting city legislators with real-life examples of the effectiveness of CalFresh. She did a webinar to spread her advocacy message and highlight legislative actions tied to food distribution to those who need it most. Patterson and Schwab said their internship gave them a better understanding about the challenges faced by the organizations such as the ones they represented.
“It’s very easy, in this field, to get lost in the bureaucracy of a large organization, and yet, with a smaller organization that may have more freedom, there is little to no funding and it’s ten times more competitive,” said Patterson (pictured, right). “The processes and systems are more complex than I ever expected. I’ll be able to put a lot of the theories I learn in class into perspective with this new insight and apply it more seriously when I return.”
The KSPS master’s degree helps students harness their passion for peace building and that’s why there are two tracks, 12- and 17-months. Applicants for the yearlong program, which started in 2002, attracted students with extensive experience. It wasn’t long, though, before interest from younger peace-building aspirants with little to no actual experience, emerged. The addition of a 17-month track in 2009 and the addition of an internship gave students more time to develop their skills and a formidable place to hone them.
“The internship creates real-life connections between the skills we’ve learned in the classroom with everyone’s individual passions,” Schwab said. “We all sought internships we feel strongly about and it gives us the opportunity to test those passions in the community.”
Schwab’s summer experience narrowed his approach. “My biggest takeaway is recognizing there’s not always going to be an organization doing exactly what you want to do. Many people who have a very specific interest create their own jobs. That’s what grassroots work is all about — starting something new that you know your community will benefit from. … As I come back for our final semester, I’m coming into it less as a student and more as a business or project planner. The time for learning is coming to a halt and I feel an even greater urge to act on my training.”
Otto said students are to participate in a seminar this fall led by KSPS faculty member Dustin Sharp where they’ll share their respective internship experiences. Students will soon focus to their capstone projects that are due in December. Otto stressed that a KSPS internship is not tied specifically to capstones, but the experience gained can validate and shape capstone topics such as human rights, conflict analysis and resolution, and development.
As Riordan, Patterson, Schwab and others have learned, San Diego’s as good a place as any to develop knowledge about those topics.
“When you dream, you always want to make the biggest difference,” Riordan said. “I think it’s important to see that you can do that in your own community first. It’s the place that raised you. Everyone needs to pay it back.”
— Ryan T. Blystone