15:07 PM

Gators Discuss Importance of Community Engagement During Luncheon


The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) has redefined the college experience for many students. Through service learning initiatives, UHD students apply what they're learning in classrooms to a number of community projects.

These efforts recently were celebrated during UHD's Community Engagement Luncheon on Sept. 15 at the Junior League of Houston. The event assembled members of the community to raise awareness and generate financial support for UHD's efforts in connecting students to real-world issues facing the city. During the event, attendees heard from three who are making a difference in the community.

The first speaker was senior fine arts major Gabriel Morales. A graphic designer, Morales has contributed his talents to projects for the Texan French Alliance for the Arts, the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, and Writers in the Schools. He admitted that his passion for art was motivation for attending UHD and that his participation in such community engagement endeavors is personally rewarding. He credited Gaby Hernandez, assistant professor of art, for providing him with these meaningful opportunities.

"Such hand-on, real world experiences offer professional development opportunities for students like me," Morales said. "I've been able to work with amazing non-profit organizations. These experiences have allowed me to grow as an artist, designer and leader."

Morales, a part-time graphic designer with UHD's University Relations team, was particularly moved by his experience with Writers in the Schools. He said that he was tasked with designing posters to complement poetry written by elementary school students of all ages. The final result was "concrete poetry," with imagery that helped communicate the students' words.

"It is amazing to experience the confidence and level of writing that these students have acquired," he said. "Their poems are inspirational, phenomenal and thought provoking. They speak about ideas that trigger our minds."

Morales recalled students' reactions when they viewed these designs for the first time, and felt a sense of accomplishment in knowing that he helped inspire their continued interest in the arts.

"I am proud to call myself an artist and hope to continue working with non-profit organization and in the community," he said.

Charles Hearne, executive relations manager for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) followed Morales discussing how that program helps former prison inmates get a fresh start after completing their sentences. A former inmate himself, Hearne can relate to the challenges faced by those transitioning into the outside world. Inmates are tasked with developing business plans that both expand their horizons and challenge their abilities.

Mentored by Bill Dudley, director of the Center for UHD's Center for Entrepreneurship, Hearne has assisted in the center's efforts to provide business student advisers to PEP participants.

"We were informed that there was not only a positive impact on the men involved with PEP but on the students," Hearne said. "I want to thank everyone at UHD and all of the sponsors at this event for all that they have done to help these inmates return to society and positively influence their families and communities."

The next speaker was social work alumna Jerriann Nettles, who contributed to student collaborations with AARP to assess Houston's streets for walkability and accessibility, and with Neighborhood Centers on a technology guide for the city's senior population. Likewise, she worked on projects focused on food insecurity among UHD students and delivering a social services directory to Third Ward residents. She fondly recalled meeting a woman named Grandma Lois, whom Nettles assisted in accessing digital photos of her family, bringing tears to the woman's eyes.

"Through these experiences, I became a better communicator, collaborator and leader," she said. "Most of all, I was able to become a better neighbor, a better advocate and better human being."

KHOU Ch. 11 anchor Mia Gradney served as the event's emcee. Opening remarks were delivered by UHD Interim President Michael A. Olivas, who saluted those in attendance including former UH System (UHS) Board of Regents chairman Welcome W. Wilson Sr. and Texas Rep. Carol Alvarado. Remarks also were delivered by UHS Regent Paula Mendoza and Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos.

Event sponsors included AIG; Collaborate Architects; Garcia, Hamilton & Associates, Goya Foods, Monty & Ramirez LLP and Possible Missions.