Catalyst for Change

DATE: Wednesday, May 15, 2024

"I'm trying to do something really big with this opportunity. I have a lot of ideas. I'm shooting for the stars, trying to hit the moon." – Joseph Black, environmental science major and Newman Civic Fellow

Joseph Black explores the woods behind the HCC campus.

Presented with the opportunity to nominate a student for a Newman Civic Fellowship, a national award that recognizes leadership potential and a commitment to positive change in the community, Holyoke Community College Anthropology Professor Vanessa Martinez immediately thought of Joseph Black.

Last fall, Black, an environmental science major and HCC STEM scholar, approached her about enrolling in her honors colloquium for the spring 2024 semester, Be the Change. At first, she wasn't sure the six-credit class would fit into his otherwise rigorous academic schedule. 

"With STEM majors, there often isn't a lot of wiggle room to take courses that aren't prescribed in their discipline," she said. His response: "I'll take it as an extra class if I have to." 

The course, which explores the concept of change in all its forms: societal, cultural, political, personal, mathematical, and religious, among others, fit right into Black's worldview. It also incorporated an environmentally focused, community-based learning project that meshed with his major. 

"I really want to do good in the world," Black told her. 

"Let's see how we can make this work," said Martinez. 

This spring, as his professor, Martinez witnessed first-hand his excitement for the class, especially the group project, an Earth Day community cleanup students organized in partnership with One Holyoke Community Development Corporation and the Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection.   

"The fact that he had come to me and advocated for himself to take my class - he was the first person who popped into my head," she said, recalling her decision to nominate him for the fellowship. "He's sweet. He's Latino. He's kind. You know, human. With the fellowship, he'll get support to build his leadership skills." 

Earlier this month, Black, who lives in Palmer, found out he was chosen as a Newman Civic Fellow for 2024-2025 by Campus Compact, a national coalition of colleges and universities working to advance the public purposes of higher education. As such, he will join a cohort of 142 college students selected from 38 states for the year-long program. He is one of three community college students in Massachusetts named Newman Civic Fellows this year and the only one from western Massachusetts. 

"I'm surprised and excited," said Black. "In high school, I wasn't the worst student, but I certainly wasn't the best student or anything like that. So, being able to take up a fellowship like this feels really good." 

The program is named for the late Frank Newman, one of Campus Compact's founders, a tireless advocate for civic engagement in higher education. In the spirit of Newman's leadership, U.S. colleges and universities are invited to nominate one exemplary community-committed student each year. 

Black, 21, a first-generation college student, was born in southern California, one of seven siblings (and himself a triplet), son of a Colombian mother and Italian-American father who moved to Massachusetts when he was young. 

In his personal statement for the fellowship, Black writes about how, growing up in a large family without a lot of money, he often sought refuge in the woods around his new hometown of Palmer. 

"My love of nature has always been paramount in my life," he said. "Spending afternoons surrounded by forests led to a deep adoration of the natural world and how it affects society. From raising money for endangered local species to river cleanups, I participated in as much advocacy for the environment as a kid could. But now, I am old enough to contribute a loud and active voice in the community. I want to use the skills and resources that schooling gives me to advocate for better environmental protections, raise awareness about issues that are impacting us, and ensure that higher-risk populations have their rights preserved." 

The cornerstone of the fellowship is the annual convening of Newman Civic Fellows, which offers intensive, in-person, skill-building and networking over three days. The fellowship also provides fellows with pathways to apply for exclusive opportunities, including mini grants to help fund community projects, scholarships, and post-graduate opportunities. 

"We are honored to recognize such an outstanding group of community-committed students," said Campus Compact President Bobbie Laur. "One of the best parts of the Newman Civic Fellowships is the richness of students' perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds – and how these varied stories all led to their passionate engagement with the social, political, and environmental issues impacting our world. These students will be the catalysts for change on many levels, and we are privileged to help empower them to create that change." 

As a Newman fellow, Black will be responsible for developing his own community-based project in consultation with his mentor, Professor Martinez.  

"This is a really good networking opportunity, and having access to scholarships and grants is great," Black said, "but the thing that I'm really excited about is this community-based project that I'm hoping will be very high impact."   

Black is not the first HCC student to be awarded a Newman Civic Fellowship, but he is the first who will serve his fellowship year before graduating. 

"That's the most exciting part," said Martinez. "I get to keep him for another year. This is really the first time the HCC campus will benefit from the fellowship, rather than their transfer institution." 

Black is looking forward to it as well. 

"I'm trying to do something really big with this opportunity," he said. "I have a lot of ideas. I'm shooting for the stars, trying to hit the moon."  

PHOTO: Environmental science major Joseph Black, explores the woods behind the HCC campus.