May 15, 2009

Students Live Where They Serve

In a house four miles east and south from SMU four students live fully immersed in their multicultural community. Like their SMU peers, they attend classes and juggle social lives, but they also participate in a learning environment that is making a lasting impression on their lives and changing the lives of others.

The students live in Academic-Community-Engagement (ACE) House and work year-round in the low-income East Dallas neighborhood, providing free tutoring sessions to neighborhood children and volunteering at local service organizations.

ACEHouse.jpgFirst-year student Melissa Perette tutors neighborhood children at the Academic-Community-Engagement (ACE) House in East Dallas.

“As much as we try to help kids in the community, we also are trying to help our own students who really are seekers,” says Bruce Levy, director of the Center for Academic-Community-Engagement (ACE), part of SMU’s General Education Program. “Many are looking for something substantial and meaningful in their lives. ACE coursework, work-study jobs, and the ACE House can provide that.”

A big draw for some students is the affordable rent at ACE House. With the help of community support, Levy’s goal is to establish rent scholarships to enable even more students to benefit from the experience.

“Our students are very driven, but some could not have afforded to come to SMU if not for the ACE House,” he says. “They pay moderate rent and the house provides a home away from home for them.”

Since the ACE Center (formerly known as the Inter-Community Experience) was founded 18 years ago, more than 2,500 students have taken various service-learning courses exploring aspects of the urban experience and civic responsibility while also volunteering in the community. ACE House residents tutor alongside other service-learning course participants and work-study students.

Senior Gina Argueta has lived in the ACE House for three years and has volunteered there for four. The accounting major says she has grown close with her neighbors, who once gladly shared their oven to let the ACE House residents bake a pan of muffins.

When the ACE House students are on break, the children ask their parents to check on when their tutoring sessions will resume.

“Our group of tutors is very close,” says Argueta, who lives in the house year-round. “It is our job, but it’s what we love to do more than anything. I’m a little sad it will be my last semester.”

Angelica “Angie” Parra ’95 was one of the first residents of ACE House (formerly known as ICE House), beginning in summer 1994 when she was a senior. She served on the neighborhood association and interacted with both children and their families. While there she befriended 11-year-old Elizabeth Torres, who now lives in Mesquite and works as a translator at Children’s Medical Center. Parra took Torres on trips to the library and downtown Dallas and later invited her to visit when she moved to New York City.

Torres said ICE House residents helped to keep the neighborhood kids out of trouble, particularly with organized summer activities. “They were a great influence on us and helped us get to where we are now as a adults,” says the mother of two. “If I had a problem or needed help with my homework, I could always run next door and ask. They almost always left the door open. I wouldn’t change my experience or my friendship with Angie for the world.”

Parra now works in the financial services industry and is enrolled in a Leadership Dallas class, offered by the Dallas Regional Chamber. “There is so much I can draw from that experience 14 years ago,” she says. “It still influences my learning and viewpoints.”

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