Senior Dedicated to Serving Campus and Local Community Receives Recognition
Emma Berk (C’20) has focused on being a person for others since her first year at Georgetown. Her work with four different service projects led her to receive the university‘s prestigious Landegger Award, an honor given to students who have made outstanding contributions to community service. She hopes one day to become a psychologist in a correctional facility.
After getting settled on campus as a first-year student, Berk quickly became involved in service initiatives, including Georgetown Jumpstart, Best Buddies and the student-run Project Lighthouse. Later, she became involved with Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative.
Jumpstart is a program run by the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service at Georgetown in partnership with Americorps. Berk and a team of students visit a different preschool every week in under-resourced areas in DC. Their goal is to help improve socioemotional learning and bolster vocabulary in an effort to close the literacy gap.
“I was really struck by the discrepancies I saw among schools,” Berk explains. “Some schools have so little and others so much, so it was important to me that I continue volunteering for a group that was working to level the playing field.”
Berk says she reads a book aloud to the young children on Mondays, and returns to the school on Wednesdays to discuss the characters in the book. The preschoolers then participate in small group activities with Georgetown students, helping them expand on the story with art or dramatic play.
Berk spent her first two years as a member of Jumpstart and the next two years as a team leader, organizing and directing teams in larger group activities.
She also volunteers for Best Buddies, a nonprofit founded by Anthony Kennedy Shriver (C’88) whose goal is to create opportunities for one-on-one friendships with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as find them employment and inclusive living arrangements.
Through the nonprofit, Berk maintains a close relationship with her friend Robin, who works at Petco.
“Robin and I stay in touch and text frequently,” says Berk. “We have learned a lot from each other over the years.”
Though helping people outside of Georgetown is important to Berk, she also wanted to assist those in the university community. This is why she joined Project Lighthouse during the fall semester of her first year.
Project Lighthouse is an anonymous chat service providing peer support to troubled students during the university’s “off hours.”
Between the hours of 7 p.m. and 1 a.m., student volunteers like Berk are available to chat with any student who contacts the service. Each volunteer undergoes 40 hours of training to talk with the students and, if appropriate, refer them to a mental health professional.
Berk started as a volunteer, eventually advanced to a trainer and is now Project Lighthouse’s director of oversight. In this role, she does audits to assess the effectiveness of the service and the work of the volunteers.
“Everybody struggles from time to time, including me,” the undergraduate says. “I love that I am able help my peers feel a better sense of community, belonging and security.”
Prisons and Justice
At some point during her academic career, Berk began taking courses focused on mass incarceration and the criminal justice system. The more she learned, the more she wanted to get involved.
“I was really struck and overwhelmed by how unjust the system is,” she says. “This is the major civil rights issue of our time.”
Berk later began working as a research assistant for the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown, for which she helped incarcerated individuals conduct internet research for their Georgetown courses. It was this experience along with her courses at Georgetown that has inspired Berk to want to become a correctional psychologist.
Each of the programs Berk volunteered for during her time at Georgetown involved making personal connections, an aspect Berk hopes will carry over into a future career working in correctional facilities.
“My senior thesis involves interviewing correctional psychologists regarding best practices,” says Berk. “Several of them have said that I should go into public policy if I want to see greater changes in the system, but my skill set lies in making an impact at the one-on-one level. That’s where I see myself making the biggest difference.”
Berk was one of 20 students selected for the Landegger award, six of whom hail from the College. She says her dedication to serving her community began at a young age.
“My mom has had a really large influence on my view of community service,” says Berk. “My parents were always taking us to various events that helped our community. It was important to them that we learn how to serve others.”
-by Shelby Roller (G’19)