It was a now-familiar scene as the small squares started to come to life on the screen, each one filling with the eager faces of the inaugural class of the 2020 Illini Science Policy Program (ISP) fellows. Although they come from diverse backgrounds – crop sciences, management, social work, European studies, and meat sciences – they share a passion for public policy and its impact on communities.
This is what drew them to the Illini Science Policy Program, a new opportunity from the University of Illinois Extension & Public Engagement Connection Center (EPECC). The Illini Science Policy Program is a unique post-graduate opportunity for graduate students who are interested in University of Illinois Extension’s critical issue areas – food, economy, environment, community, and health – and the policy decisions affecting those resources.
Whereas many new graduates found their plans shuttered by COVID-19, the Illini Science Policy Program rapidly adapted to a remote, online format for fellows to join orientation and begin their projects with their mentors. Instead of handshakes, the fellows shared smiles through Zoom, sharing stories about who they were and what they envisioned the next year to be for them as they traded in graduate student life for their career paths.
The ISP matches highly motivated and qualified graduate students who completed their degree from UIUC with hosts in public agencies or the Illinois legislature for a 12-month paid appointment. Fellows receive mentorship from both their host agencies and a mentor within University of Illinois Extension, gaining first-hand experience in the many ways the University and government deliver services to Illinois residents.
This year, EPECC was able to make matches with three public agencies: the Illinois Department of Agriculture, Meat and Poultry Inspection, the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology, Education Group, and the Illinois Department Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Office of Broadband. Additionally, EPECC was able to make matches with two legislative placements. One with Senator Aquino and the Latino Caucus and one with Representative Lilly and the Black Caucus Foundation.
During the orientation, no one ever imagined that the first meeting with their host agency would take place in a breakout room over Zoom. But like so much, adjustments were made so that the fellows could continue on a journey in which they would put theories into practice and apply knowledge into action through projects and experiences provided by their host. Each fellow is now actively engaged with their host and Extension Mentor on projects that address critical issues in Illinois, from food safety to broadband access.
What follows will be a six-part series in which the fellows and their host agencies will be highlighted individually to allow you to follow the fellows as they explore what it means to have broad impact through engagement with public policy on the communities of Illinois.