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Community Engagement Opportunities

Since 2014, Associate Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Gemma Halfi has spearheaded Community Engagement Opportunities (CEOs) on campus. She was asked to reimagine the concept of community service and service learning while answering the question "How can Emma connect to the local community through an equity and justice lens?"

Her first step was moving away from the phrase "community service" and towards "community engagement" to encourage the feeling that we're all working together instead of a categorization that divides between the people who serve and the people who receive. Gemma also wished to develop long-standing relationships with organizations as opposed to one-off projects. This way, students can see the difference they’re making over time, and these organizations can educate students on a deeper level of the issues they face.

CEOs are available to students in a couple of ways—most often as a weekend activity offering, or as a Practicum experience through Bridget McGivern (head of the Practicum program). Weekend activities allow any student to participate, while Practicum helps students dive deeply into a topic of their choosing while earning course credit. Ksenia M. ’26 has been working with Sidewalk Warriors, an organization working to feed and support Troy locals with free hot meals and pantry items. Ksenia loyally participates every Thursday—a job that can be physically and emotionally taxing for volunteers of this age. She has cultivated an interest among the Emma community with a few students now partaking weekly. Students are also active members at Hope7 Community Center, which serves as an after-school childcare program for Troy’s East Side families, assisting with homework, arts and crafts, physical education, and general childcare. 

One of Gemma’s main focuses for CEOs has been local food insecurity. She has worked closely with Mount Ida Food Pantry for years, building strong relationships with the volunteers as she hosts CEOs there twice per month. “Every time we walk in on a Saturday morning, they're like, hey, it's Emma! They just love the Emma Willard Students so much. And it's really sweet,” said Gemma. Facilitating the relationships between the pantry staff and students has been so meaningful to her, and this has become one of her favorite organizations to work with. 

students at food pantry

Emma students working at Mount Ida Food Pantry for a weekend CEO.

Gemma has big dreams for the future of this program. Something she has been contemplating for a while is adding CEOs to ninth-grade advisory, and teaching a cross-disciplinary CEO-based class alongside other teachers. 

“I could envision having students sign up for a course like this and be really invested in wanting to make some positive change in the world. And thinking about it from the perspective of the different pillars of change—there's on-the-ground service, and then there's policy,” Gemma explained, “What are the policies in place historically and currently that are impacting who has access? And then there's the conscientiousness of the community: what are people's perceptions about this topic, and how do those kinds of perceptions change? How do we impact cultural shifts?” 

She is hoping with the upcoming onboarding of a new Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, more time will be available to make these dreams a reality. 

CEOs have become synonymous with the Emma Experience thanks to the hard work and dedication of Gemma. To learn more about the program, or to contact Gemma about getting involved, please click here.


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