Sarah Levinn, '11, spent her summer researching and communicating with at-risk religious communities around the world.
Levinn says she couldn't believe how well her internship, funded by a David D. Burhans Civic Fellowship administered by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, at Richmond's First Freedom Center aligned with her major and interests.
A religion major, Levinn was just one of a handful of interns working on the Communities at Risk project, focusing specifically on religious groups located in the Middle East and northern Africa.
The center was founded in 1984 to celebrate the bicentennial of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and aims to educate the public about the statute's guiding principle: "that all persons are entitled to freedom of conscience unfettered by the State."
After hearing about an at-risk religious group in her target area, Levinn researched the community's beliefs and culture, and determined what was threatening its existence.
"Potential threats ranged greatly, from physical violence to being barred from enrolling in a university because of your faith," Levinn said. "The Bahá'ís of Iraq aren't allowed to list their religion on their identification cards. That's not as visible, but it strips away at the culture over time and over generations."
Levinn says that she really enjoyed the monthly teleconferences she participated in with the other nine Burhans Civic Fellows.
Named after University of Richmond chaplain emeritus David Burhans, the fellowship provides funding for students completing otherwise unpaid, academically grounded, 10-week internships in the non-profit or government sectors.
Other fellows worked with organizations ranging from the Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for Humanity to the Children's Advocacy Center of Benton County, Ark.
"People were doing such great things that affected the community in so many ways," she said. "It made me feel like I could be doing so much more. In some ways it made me realize what I think I want to do with my life."
Hearing about the community service other fellows were completing encouraged Levinn to apply to graduate programs in social work. She also now participates in the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement’s Build It initiative as a volunteer at the Daily Planet, a Richmond-based nonprofit that provides health and human welfare services to the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless.
She says one of the reasons she decided to volunteer was to gauge whether or not she'd be a good fit for social work.
And, so far, she says she loves it.
"I assist in case management of clients by helping them find and receive their benefits, make appointments, and complete various other tasks.
"I'm learning a lot just through talking with the residents. It's been my favorite part of the experience."