Walking through a West Philadelphia neighborhood during spring break, 14 University of Richmond sophomores learned how 3,000 murals can unite a neighborhood. After returning to campus, the students had a deeper understanding of the issues facing U.S. cities and the people who call them home.

The trip was part of the University’s Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) Living Learning Program, “Civic Engagement: Urban Crisis in America,” which examined the origin and impact of the urban crisis on metropolitan areas.

During the 2009-10 academic year, SSIR students explored issues relating to racial segregation, poverty, population shifts, suburban sprawl and urban renewal through a common living arrangement, experiential learning opportunities, and a course, “Urban Crisis in America,” taught by Amy Howard, executive director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. The trip gave students the opportunity to see their coursework come alive in modern cities.

In addition to listening to a Philadelphia mural artist speak about how his work helped to renew a blighted neighborhood, students visited New York City and met with New York Housing Authority representatives and current tenants. They also spoke with nonprofit leaders working on issues surrounding predatory lending and public education. In Washington, D.C. they visited the D.C. Central Kitchen and met with Robert Egger, a national leader in social entrepreneurship.

“By visiting three very different cities, students were able to compare urban problems and solutions and understand how leaders and activists have worked to improve their cities,” said Andy Gurka, director of living learning programs. “I hope this experience will help them integrate what they learned in the classroom with their lives and futures.”

Lucas Hakkenberg, a Burhans Civic Fellow who is majoring in political science and leadership studies, participated in SSIR to better connect with the community outside of the University and meet fellow students who cared about similar issues.

“This trip helped me understand the importance of listening to the community before deciding on policies,” said Hakkenberg, who hopes to pursue a master’s degree in urban planning or attend law school after graduation. "Urban policy should be a collaboration between policy experts and community members."

Spach Trahan, a member of Women Involved in Learning and Learning (WILL) and Diversity Roundtable who is majoring in sociology and women, gender and sexuality studies, also got involved with SSIR to connect her coursework with important social issues in the community.

“Urban communities have such great potential, which I think has been overlooked over the past few decades when people started moving to the suburbs,” she said. “But there is a lot of potential for strong community ties in these dense, interconnected neighborhoods.”

Shanelle Bobb, a political science major with history and Spanish minors who serves as the vice president for the Black Student Alliance, found the connections she made with her fellow students and the professionals they met during the trip to be empowering.

“This experience has truly changed my outlook, and I see that our generation is more civically engaged than any generation before it,” she said. “For every person who doesn’t care about what is going on in deteriorating education systems or public housing, there is someone who does.”