Hope Corps puts students, businesses and nonprofits on path to success

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

The Hope Corps is connecting our students with business and community organizations with the aim of mutually beneficial experiences. Our students gain on-the-job experience and participating organizations get much needed help from our students — which has proved vital to many of them during the pandemic. In this episode, Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics and director of the Hope Corps program describes the program and the difference it is making in the community. Students Natalie Winward and Erick Garcia share their experiences working with Hope Corps and as interns at United Way and with the Ivory Foundation. Recorded on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley. Read the full transcript.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising Podcast. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the U. Now, I think we could all use a little bit of an inspirational story. This podcast is it. We're going to talk about the Hope Corps, an innovative program that really exemplifies our mission not only as the University of Utah, but as I like to say, the University for Utah.

Hope Corps has been described as the Peace Corps for business and nonprofit organizations. What amazing solution in the middle of a pandemic to allow our students to continue to learn, do internships and projects, and also to support our community.

My guest today, Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics and also director of the Hope Corps program. Natalie Winward — Natalie is a communication and international studies major with an emphasis on environmental sustainability. And Erick Garcia, who is majoring in information systems. Welcome all three of you.

Morgan Lyon Cotti: Thanks for having us, President.

President Watkins: I'm just delighted that you were able to take some time and be with me today. So, Morgan, let's start with you. Tell us about the Hope Corps, what it is, its purpose, and how it came to be on our campus.

Morgan Lyon Cotti: It's really amazing that this started less than a year ago because its impact has been so profound, but it really started summer of 2020. Like so many people, so many Utahns, those who started this were really looking around at what was happening with the pandemic and the economic crisis and seeing the impact it was having on our state, but also seeing that there were businesses that were just falling through the cracks.

They weren't qualifying for some of the state and federal programs that were designed to help them through the pandemic. So, we had some very generous founders — the Ivory Foundation, the Boyer Group and Utah Community Builders — who very wisely wanted to connect employees with these businesses, wanted to help these businesses and knew that it was the amazing universities throughout our state that could provide students who had the skills and the excitement and the know-how to come into these businesses and really make an impact.

And there were Hope Corps throughout the universities in the state. And here at the U, it really started in the Eccles School of Business. And thanks to the amazing work of Dean Taylor Randall and Ruchi Watson and Katie Abby, they were able to put hundreds of students to work and they were in businesses and nonprofits and other organizations, and really moved the needle on certain projects and helped on other major issues the state was facing. And it was so successful over the summer, we thought we have to keep this going. The Hinckley Institute had been a part of it in the summer, really helping make connections with nonprofits, and we have such a robust internship program anyway, we thought this fits so nicely here and we decided to keep it going.

President Watkins: Well, tell listeners, Morgan, some examples of the kinds of businesses and organizations that our students have been working with through Hope Corps.

Morgan Lyon Cotti: One of my favorite examples is that we had a marketing team in the summer, and we were able to duplicate this again in the fall, and they were mostly managed by the business school and they were able to put students in sort of these little mini-internships, these mini job experiences. So, the one example everybody loves is Brownies! Brownies! Brownies! And the students were able to go in and Brownies! Brownies! Brownies! is an example of a company, a bakery, who suddenly when people weren't going out and shopping, were trying to figure out how do we get customers? And so for businesses like that, the students were able to help update a website or re-tool the marketing scheme and help in that way.

And then we had students that were also working on other really crucial projects. We had students on the HERO Project, which was part of the antibody testing that was really helpful for our state to understand the impact of the pandemic — how many people were actually asymptomatic, how many people might be sick and not getting tested — so we could really wrap our heads around what the state needed to do to respond.

We had students working on PPP Loan Forgiveness, and then students working with nonprofits who were assisting those who had been disproportionately affected like Comunidades Unidas and Centro Hispano. Helping those people get the resources they needed to get back on their feet or help them respond to the pandemic and how was that either affecting their own family or just their community.

President Watkins: Really great examples, Morgan. Well, I think it's time we hear from some Hope Corps volunteers, students who are engaging with this project. Natalie, I understand that you've been working with United Way. I'd be very interested in what you've been doing and what it was that drew you to Hope Corps in the first place.

Natalie Winward: Well, when the pandemic hit, I started witnessing a lot of local and small businesses closing their doors and going under. I also saw my little nieces and nephews struggling with online school and I saw people feeling more isolated than ever.

I myself was feeling a bit detached from the community and those around me, and I really wanted to reconnect with the people here in Salt Lake. And I wanted to do something to help those out who may be struggling to deal with all of the many complications that come along with living during a pandemic. So that's why I felt drawn to the Hope Corps program. I wanted to be one of the many pair of hands that rebuilds our community after such an unprecedented injury, which is what Hope Corps is all about. And yes, like you mentioned, President, I was lucky enough to be paired with United Way, which is a nonprofit whose main goal is to mobilize individuals to advance the common good of the community.

So, my particular branch is focused on educational equity and we want to ensure that all students have the tools they need to succeed and are on par with others in their classroom. Which is especially important during these times when school is suddenly online, and kids need stable internet or may be having trouble adapting to the new online format. They might need academic tutoring or mental health counseling after such a chaotic year. And we understand that parents may be losing their jobs and financially struggling and could use assistance with rent and food and clothing. And that, too, can impact a student's learning and their focus capabilities. So, we wanted to help with all of that.

One of my main responsibilities is training volunteers to call families directly to assess what their needs are and then pair them with the appropriate resources. So, at this point we've connected hundreds of families in need with resources that can help them. And I truly believe that our community is better off thanks to United Way of Salt Lake and thanks to the Hope Corps program.

President Watkins: What a powerful experience, Natalie. I imagine you heard directly from families about really urgent needs and, with your talent, been able to help connect them to resources that can support them through this difficult time.

I think maybe you're doing much of the same, Erick, in your work, but I guess your Hope Corps role is as an intern with the Ivory Foundation. Tell listeners a little bit about what you're doing.

Erick Garcia: Yeah. I'm working with the Ivory Foundation and in the beginning, I was paired up with the team with the goal of increasing the university's presence in the West Side, specifically West Valley City. And through our research, we found this great program that the university is going to plug into — called Operation My Hometown — where we're going to set up mini community centers between every 700 to a thousand homes where the youth can start providing health care services through the hospital, financial literacy courses for members of the community and students, and to give students college prep courses to bring them to the U.

And it's fantastic. I'm a member of West Valley, it's near and dear to my heart. So, I'm helping bring my community forward. And it's even closer to my heart because I have a sibling who is in high school and he's about to graduate. And so, working on this on a community level is really helping me see the struggles the communities are facing on the West Side and how we can help them achieve higher education.

President Watkins: Now, it's so impressive to me, Erick and Natalie, that what you are essentially doing is connecting communities with resources, but also using and empowering the talent in the community, of which there is a great deal. And mostly that connection and boost is really just leveraged, but the resources in the town are there in those environments.

Now, for each of you, and I guess it would probably be best Natalie and Erick, if you each answered this question. Other students are going to listen to this podcast and they're going to think, "Wow, I wonder if I should get involved with Hope Corps?” What kind of advice would you give a student who is considering that? And then how would you direct them to use their talents? Maybe we'll start with you, Natalie, and then go to you Erick.

Natalie Winward: I think that everyone listening to this should consider the Hope Corps, because you can really build lasting connections with programs that are doing important work around the community and it can even lead to long-term work opportunities. United Way actually asked me to stay on board after the semester with them for another one, and so it'll be a full academic year of working with them and I've made some great connections, made some good opportunities for my career.

And it also really helps you feel connected to the community, which is, I think more important now than ever in a time where people can feel so isolated, and it can really impact you in negative ways. And my internship with United Way has definitely helped alleviate some of those negative feelings. And I feel a lot more connected now with my community.

And any advice that I have for potential Hope Corps interns, I would just say to take the work seriously and realize that these are real people that you are connecting with and that you're impacting. To be paired with a good organization, I would just say the basics are just to update your resume and tailor them to who you want to work with. And once you're paired with that organization, really be proactive and look for ways that you can help and improve this organization because they really could just use any help that you have to offer.

President Watkins: Such wise advice, Natalie, and I think what's most interesting about that as I listened to you, is that you’re giving of your time and ideas actually winds up giving back to you even more by creating connections during this very unusual time in your own educational life and journey. So, it’s a powerful message.

Erick, what do you think? What advice would you give your student colleagues about getting involved with Hope Corps?

Erick Garcia: Well, to begin my advice, I would say act like a representative. You're not only representative of the university and a representative Hope Corps, but you are also representative of yourself for the first time professionally. You're no longer a student. This is the workforce. And it's the little things that count. I'm always having meetings with many representatives across the state. And I love doing after-meeting chats, say, "Hey, what'd you think of this?" Or, "Let's take some notes." Asking questions during meetings doesn't show that you're not paying attention, it's quite the opposite. It shows that you want to understand that the deeper concepts that are being discussed. And just like Natalie said, this is my second semester with the Hope Corps. That very foundation asked me to come back. And it's great because I'm making all these connections.

It's a little outside of my major, admittedly, I'm in information systems, but what I'm going to be able to show on my resume is that I'm working with a team of community builders, including I have weekly calls with Congressman Ben McAdams. And if I can have a former senator say on my resume, "This guy knows how to communicate. This guy worked with me," then that'll really stand apart from all my coding that my resume is going to say when I finally joined the workforce.

President Watkins: Erick such powerful insights, virtually everyone who is going to hire you in the future is going to hire you as a team member. And you are demonstrating those kinds of team skills and communication skills and what really fabulous insights that this is an opportunity for you to represent yourself as the professional you want to become — you are now and you are becoming. Really wise advice from both you, Erick and Natalie.

Well, Morgan, what do you see as the likely future for the Hope Corps? Where do you hope this program goes as we look in the future?

Morgan Lyon Cotti: It's really amazing to see the very, very firm commitment, It seems that we have from all partners to keep this going. The Hinckley Institute is absolutely committed to keeping this going as long as we can, and our donors and the community members see the very big impact. And we were very lucky to get a sizable grant from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Foundation that is really what has made it possible to continue this even through the summer, at least.

But the students, as you were just hearing from Natalie and Erick, students are hungry and eager to give back. I think we're all seeing just the devastation of the pandemic and how hard it is. And we see the amazing frontline workers and the other people that are working so hard. And I think we're all trying to be part of the solution.

And as long as we have students like Natalie and Erick who are applying and wanting to be part of this, it's just really easy to see how this is win-win, win-win, win, win, win for just everyone — the organizations benefit from having our amazing students, our students get to give back and they get to have that really crucial transformative experience, that internship, that's so important to a great college experience. And also, as Erick was saying, it's very important to being career ready. And then the U of U, of course, we get to continue our mission of being the University for Utah and being part of the community.

And the Hinckley Institute is so committed to that. And we're very excited about the future of the Hope Corps.

President Watkins: Well Morgan, Natalie, Erick, thank you for your leadership and your investment in the Hope Corps. You are all three tremendous representatives of the University of Utah. I'm so grateful for your time today.

And let me also say, listeners, thank you for joining us for this edition of the U Rising podcast. I hope you'll tune in next time. Thank you all, stay well.