Humanities in Action Scholar Spotlight: Jessica Vargas


Humanities in Action (HIA) is a semester-long, paid community engagement program for humanities students at the University of Illinois. A collaboration between We CU Community Engaged Scholars and the Humanities Research Institute, HIA supports scholars seeking to work with community partners across Champaign-Urbana on projects that have impact in real time. HIA also provides scholars with independence to explore personal passions, gain new skills, and make a difference. We CU and HRI are now accepting applications for the fall 2024 cohort. 

This week, we are spotlighting Humanities in Action Scholar Jessica Vargas. Jessica is a senior majoring in Political Science and minoring in Gender & Womens Studies. Jessica partnered with Strides Shelter in the fall 2023 semester. She worked with their outreach team on data and resource management, social media, and marketing. 

How did you apply your humanities education to your service work as a Humanities in Action scholar?

My humanities education gave me an understanding of the systemic issues that have led to inequity and necessity in our community. The other HIA scholars and I have worked with organizations that address issues of poverty, incarceration, the lack of resources for different communities, and more. Having learned about the connection between language barriers, poverty, homelessness, and incarceration, for example, has informed my service work compiling resources for Strides Shelter. My humanities education, coupled with my service experience, has helped me value the work that needs to be done such as educating our communities, donating to organizations, and providing relief work. Having a background in the humanities also gave me an empathetic attitude, which is important to have when engaging in service work.  

How has this experience contributed to your career development? What skills have you gained or developed? 

I have improved interpersonal skills, such as communication and collaboration, as well as time management and organization. I worked remotely and was tasked with synthesizing information, applying my own areas of knowledge to the resources I created, and looking for relevant resources to share. I have practiced designing, analyzing, reviewing, and editing skills that were key to my role with social media management. These general skills are all applicable to most career positions and are particularly relevant to my future law career, as research and compiling information are significant responsibilities of an attorney.  

What have you learned from working with community organizations? 

Learning how to engage in service ethically is one of my biggest takeaways from this service experience. This includes acknowledging our own positionality in relation to those we are assisting and avoiding the savior complex that often accompanies the idea that all service is good. There are power imbalances that can come with service since one party engages in service out of choice and the other relies on it out of necessity. Therefore, I have learned to be mindful of the greater inequalities that require service to begin with, while also understanding the value of volunteering.

I have also learned how community leaders have worked toward improving our communities—from aiding those struggling with addiction to providing valuable resources to formerly incarcerated individuals. It is inspiring to learn how these organizers have used their expertise to address issues in material ways, despite challenges such as low funding and flawed systems.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your Humanities in Action experience?

One of the benefits of Humanities in Action is that, regardless of your major or minor, community organizing and service work are relevant to everyone. Whether you are looking for a career in organizing or not, there is a lot to learn from serving our local community. The variety of organizations that students can work with ensures that they can connect with a cause they are passionate about and apply the experience to their future careers. 

Applications for the fall 2024 Humanities in Action program are due March 8, 2024, at 11:59 p.m. Learn more about the Humanities in Action program.