East St. Louis became infamous as a city so poor it stopped collecting garbage from 1987 to 1992 and gave away its city hall to settle a lawsuit. 1987 was also the year Illinois's School of Architecture began an on-site research project that would expand to involve several campus departments and almost every student in Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban and Regional Planning.
The East St. Louis Action Research Project (ESLARP) asks neighborhood residents to provide their expertise on changes that would improve the quality of life in the area, and then students use their scholarship and their muscles to help affect those changes.
Justin Placek spent several weekends in East St. Louis as a senior in architecture, and as a graduate student he coordinates the outreach weekends. He helped build a park, paint a church, plant bushes around houses as part of a lead abatement project, and survey residents on their needs and perceptions.
ESLARP is one of many service learning opportunities available to Illinois students, from mentoring elementary students to helping high school students use computer modeling to build molecules. In fact, Illinois offers a series of Learning in Community classes in which students join interdisciplinary teams to work on important large-scale projects with members of the community.
"I worked side-by-side with residents on all of those projects," Placek says. "They were full of energy and told stories about how they remembered the neighborhood as they were growing up."
For Justin Placek, service learning "definitely improved my education. I learned about different ways of life that I couldn't have learned in the classroom or by reading, and I learned that as a designer, to make something successful you have to adapt your ideas to what the clients want and what will benefit them the most."