SLU Public Interest Project | Strengthening Communities

June Peoples

As small-town populations age and young adults continue to move to urban areas, it can be difficult to create and sustain family businesses and culturally vibrant downtown spaces. Staffing and financial resources for nonprofits and startups are limited. Energy costs are greater in colder climates. Access to medical specialists is an ongoing challenge, as are public transportation and housing. Finding solutions to complex issues like these requires innovation and collaboration on multiple fronts. Partnerships between the University and North Country organizations benefit both town and "gown," offering unique solutions that can help the community thrive and impact the academic, intellectual and social life of students in meaningful ways.

For Mary-Joan Donovan-Buckley ’86 and her mother, Patti Donovan P’86, the University and town of Canton are like no other. Mary-Joan recalls venturing off campus to local restaurants with friends and wandering along Main Street as favorite pastimes during her college years. “It was such a vibrant little town,” she says. “It was fun to go walking and hiking. I also loved that we could easily get to Lake Placid and Ottawa and the activities there.”

Although Mary-Joan now lives on Long Island, New York, she has fond memories of the North Country and keeps close ties to college friends and St. Lawrence University. She returns to campus for every reunion, volunteers for alumni committees, and helps wherever possible and sees the struggles of small towns in the North Country up close.

“I always think of St. Lawrence as a feel-good place, steeped in the traditions of kindness, optimism, and sharing,” she continues. “It’s a place where you can be yourself—where you can relax and enjoy your experience. The local community is very much a part of that.” It is for these reasons that mother and daughter are exploring ways to help St. Lawrence foster creative connections between the University and community and partner with local organizations to have a positive impact on the North Country.

The Donovans were immediately drawn to the St. Lawrence University Public Interest Corps (SLU PIC), a new program helping define the next generation of leaders while providing important assistance to local agencies. SLU PIC enables talented students and recent graduates to share their skills with local public interest and nonprofit organizations. In return, the students and graduates gain valuable experience and expand their professional networks.

Demand for the program is already high. In only its second year, applications doubled. Fortunately, Patti Donovan provided a generous gift that made it possible for more students to participate. Some of the organizations that have benefited from SLU PIC partnerships include the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, Boys & Girls Club of Massena, GardenShare, St. Lawrence Valley Renewal House, Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY), St. Lawrence County Planning Office, St. Lawrence Land Trust and the North Country Children’s Museum (NCCM).

In small nonprofits and public interests like these, where staffing and resources are limited, every aspect of the work they do is hands-on, and every person is all-in. That leads to a deeply immersive experience for students like George Salmons ’17, who spent his summer at the North Country Children’s Museum (NCCM) providing meaningful and much-needed help.

“Rural nonprofits like NCCM have a very focused and small target group,” George says. “As a result, everything you do in the office or out in the field feels like it has an immediate impact. Every exhibit I ran and every word I typed for NCCM felt significant because I knew whatever I was doing benefited the region directly.”

In addition to fostering positive relationships that enable both students and local organizations to flourish, Mary-Joan hopes SLU PIC might encourage some students to stay in the region. She and her mother are pleased with the immediate success of the program and happy for the synergy it creates. “We have to keep reaching out and connecting with others,” she says. “For St. Lawrence to thrive, the local community must thrive.”