When Natalie Roper (Col ’13) visited the Charlottesville City Market for the first time, she looked at the fresh produce with envy. As an undergraduate student living in a dormitory on Grounds, she had no kitchen in which to cook a meal using local ingredients. Instead, she sampled local strawberry lavender jam from one vendor and goat cheese from another, then found satisfaction in a warm root vegetable sandwich from the Greenie’s tent and a freshly made doughnut from the Baker’s Palette booth.

Roper has visited the City Market—“that parking lot bursting with energy”—every Saturday since, and has developed a strong relationship with her food and where it comes from. For the last few months, Roper and fellow students Erica Stratton (Col ’14), Anne De Chastonay (Arch ’12) and their graduate-student mentor, Carla Jones (Arch ’10, ’14), have worked with Market Central, a nonprofit foundation formed by vendors and patrons, to define the role the City Market plays in the Charlottesville community.

Their work is funded by the Jefferson Public Citizens program at UVA, an initiative that supports students who want to actively apply their classroom knowledge to real-world situations in communities around the world.

The seed for the Jefferson Public Citizens program germinated in 2004, when the President’s Commission on Diversity and Equity recommended that the University take part in more community engagement projects connected to academic work. A few years later, the President’s Commission on the Future of the University made the same suggestion. Faculty and staff in the provost’s office began to rethink current programs and rededicate resources, then in 2009, JPC awarded its first yearlong grants for projects connecting community service to academics.

Rowan Sprague (Engr ’13) works on a project in Nicaragua.

Learning to do

In the JPC program, students confront challenges that even the best colleges and universities cannot simulate. When students participate in a JPC project to improve the water quality in South Africa, or to build eco-friendly housing in Charlottesville, New Orleans and Jamaica, or to broadcast a women’s rights radio show in Nicaragua, students engage in what engineering professor J. Milton Adams (Engr ’76), interim executive vice president and provost, calls “the art of learning how to do something.”

For example, Roper, Stratton, De Chastonay and Jones have put into action the knowledge gained from urban planning coursework and other University resources to help the Charlottesville City Market understand where it stands now and plan how it might grow. They have formed close relationships with the individual vendors and their products, city employees (Charlottesville’s Parks and Recreation Department oversees the market) and market patrons.

“There’s a huge dearth of information about the market, and this is where JPC comes in,” says Cecile Gorham (Col ’77), chairwoman of Market Central, the community partner for the City Market project. “They have the resources we need and wouldn’t have otherwise.”

This summer, the group conducted a survey of market patrons and will spend the fall semester compiling and analyzing the data before presenting their findings to the Charlottesville and UVA communities. “The market creates a public space [that allows] the community to come together on Saturday mornings,” says Roper, “and we have to determine the market’s role in Charlottesville, the space and its importance to the people.”

Working as teams

Brian Williams (Arch ’10) manages ecoMod construction

Each JPC team consists of a handful of undergraduate students, a faculty adviser, a graduate student mentor and a community partner. The program awards 20 research grants each year, and the process is selective. To receive funding, students must submit a thoughtful and well-researched proposal, plus a letter of endorsement from the community partner.

That letter is perhaps the most important part of all. JPC aims to “practice the very best in ethical community engagement,” says Megan Raymond (Grad ’05), director of community partnerships at UVA. If a project will burden rather than assist a community, it doesn’t happen.

“There’s a lot to do before [a team] gets out the door,” says Raymond. JPC projects, from the beginning of a proposal to the end of the final panel presentation, take around 16 months to complete. Sometimes students leave for a project only a couple of months after receiving the go-ahead. Before they depart for the project site, students participate in cultural competency workshops and team-building exercises to test their strength as a collaborative unit.

Despite all of this preparation, there is “no substitute for learning on the ground,” says Raymond. “And sometimes that happens through mistakes. Everyone [in JPC] knows that’s the best kind of learning.”

Plans tend to change drastically once the team arrives on the project site, and this is often the greatest test of the students’ working knowledge. In 2009, JPC’s inaugural year, a group of students traveled to the village of Tshapasha, South Africa, to repair a slow-sand water filtration system installed a few years earlier by a group of UVA engineering students and students from the nearby University of Venda.

The filter had stopped working, and after researching various repair options, the team planned to move the sand-filled filter barrels up the hill and replace the concrete platform with a cheaper metal one. “Things definitely didn’t go as planned,” says Ethan Heil (Engr ’11, ’13), now a JPC veteran who begins work on his sixth project this fall, this time as a graduate student mentor.

Joy Wang (Col ’12) tutors in Albemarle County

After asking Tshapashians for their thoughts on the repair, Heil and his peers understood that relocating the system and building a new structure would only complicate the existing problem and add unnecessary waste to the village landscape. The slow-sand filter stayed in place, and the group’s project assumed a different—and more effective—form.

The JPC team restarted the system and built a new brick platform to support it. By using brick, the team utilized local resources and made use of local skills that could easily be applied after the JPC team returned to the U.S. “It became their project, not our project,” says Heil.

When not working, the students and the residents discussed soccer and worked at learning each other’s languages. “These really small things—like talking about soccer—made the whole project a lot easier,” said Heil. “The close relationships [developed with community members and the University of Venda students] were, for me, the greatest thing. I’m still in touch with some of them on Facebook.”

Lifelong commitments

Students in the program often reapply to continue their projects into the next year. As projects evolve, new questions arise, and students want to continue fostering the relationships they’ve built with a community partner. “That’s the thing with community work—it’s always changing,” says Stratton. But Milton Adams points out that JPC students demonstrate a lifelong commitment to service. That, he suspects, will not change.

Whether conducting preliminary research in Alderman Library, working on a water filter in South Africa or choosing carrots at the city market, “students begin to understand what knowledge is,” says Adams. “That’s what it means to go to university. You don’t just learn facts, you learn how to do something and think about what your own questions are.”

Heil, while no longer involved with the water filtration effort, continues to work on JPC projects, exploring issues related to sustainability. Roper, Stratton, De Chastonay and Jones will reapply for a grant to visit other East Coast city markets and bring their observations back to Charlottesville.

“We need to keep going,” says Roper. “Going to the market on Saturdays, conducting surveys and attending community meetings—that’s only the beginning.”

Kappie Farrington (Col ’10) learns a new dance in Uganda