The success of the San Diego State University Sage Project's inaugural year is paving the way for a prosperous second cohort.
The project, which is a partnership between SDSU and a local government in the San Diego region, is designed to cater to the city's sustainability goals.
Throughout the academic year, more than a thousand students from 30 classes across campus focused on projects in National City, the city partner for the 2013-14 and upcoming 2014-15 academic years.
Through coursework, hands-on projects and extensive research, students engage in real-world projects and contribute to a greater quality of life for residents in a community in SDSU’s service area.
Students majoring in fields from art to geography to engineering assist local governments with projects that address community's growth and sustainability goals.
Jessica Barlow, director of the Sage Project, is the driving force behind the successful program.
“The Sage Project engages students in high-impact activities that have the potential to transcend their individual courses, by providing them with meaningful experiences that can have a real and positive impact on their community,” said Barlow, who is also a professor for SDSU's School of Speech Language and Hearing Sciences.
“These are transformative experiences. Students are able to recognize that their work is important, and many of them have been given unique opportunities such as internships with National City that they would not have otherwise had.”
SDSU's Sage Project is similar to the Sustainable City Year Program at the University of Oregon. Like the project in Oregon, the Sage Project engages hundreds of students who invest thousands of hours assisting local communities as they seek to build a more equitable and sustainable future.
The Sustainable Cities program was started by Marc Schlossberg and Nico Larco, directors of the Sustainable Cities Initiative at the University of Oregon. Larco is an architecture professor and Schlossberg is a professor of city planning.
"Eight years ago we decided to co-teach a class to bring our students together and learn from one another," Schlossberg said. "After seeing how interested and engaged students were in this applied, multidisciplinary class, the pair wanted to expand the scope of the project. They gathered a group of other faculty to find ways to work together and decided to direct courses over an academic year to a single Oregon city."
"We wanted to find a way to work together and needed something tangible to get going, and teaching courses focused on the same place seemed like a great idea," Larco said.
They approached the City of Gresham, about 100 miles from the campus, and asked if they had any interest related to the focal areas of the group.
"One thing led to another and we ended up matching 19 classes to projects the city wanted help with," Larco said.
Seeing the success of Oregon's program led Barlow to implement the same idea at SDSU under the support and direction of Geoffrey Chase, dean of Undergraduate Studies, who is also the director of the Center for Regional Sustainability at SDSU.
Why National City?
National City is a highly urban, disproportionately low-income, diverse and multi-ethnic community of approximately 60,000 residents in San Diego's South Bay area.
"We decided to work with National City for our first two years because they showed the greatest enthusiasm for the program and recognized that the impact of the partnership could be far-reaching,” Barlow said. “In addition, we were greatly impressed by all the city’s efforts that were already underway to improve livability, walkability, bikeability and general health and safety in their community. We wanted to complement those efforts in creative and meaningful ways.”
Course projects are directly related to goals and initiatives outlined in the National City 2013 Strategic Plan and are developed in consultation with National City staff.
Success for students
The Sage Project promotes student success by providing classes with opportunities for applied learning, service in local communities and research.
Through already-existing classes, students engaged in work that help address National City's key sustainability challenges.
"My involvement with the Sage Project allowed my classmates and me to take what we’ve learned and apply it to a real life situation," said Jessica Madamba, a recent graduate with a degree in environmental studies.
"In the class that I helped teach, the students learned the importance of ownership. Having the feeling of understanding what their neighborhood needs are, what they would like to see in their local parks and neighborhood areas, and how to take the future of these areas into their own hands."
The Sage Project also supports faculty by matching their courses with engaging, real-world projects from a partner city and by providing support, information, and infrastructure to make projects a drop-in for their courses.
Over the course of the year, students participated in projects for National City ranging from rethinking the Marina District, proposing bike paths and sustainable, urban design.
"Any program that gives students the opportunity to gain real-world insight is a successful program," said Dana Kuhn
, an SDSU finance professor whose class developed a property management plan for National City.
“Students who participate in the Sage Project are presented with real, existing problems that need to be addressed, and they're given the opportunity to identify and combat these issues," Kuhn continued.
On the horizon
After a successful first year, the Sage Project will continue its partnership with National City for another year, and plans to submit a request for proposals for partnerships with other cities in San Diego County for the 2015-2016 academic year.
Barlow said, “Our highly successful first year will help attract future partners and allow the program to continue to grow.”
"The Sage Project is a program that can open many doors for SDSU students, cities and the residents of those cities," Madamba said. "I was offered a full-time position at City Hall in the Neighborhood Services Division, where I work at now. All from taking one class."
If you are interested in getting involved with the Sage Project, contact Jessica Barlow or call 619-594-3807.