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Student Funding with a Multiplier Effect

Community graduate research assistant program connects students to the nonprofit community.

Business and Community  |  Jul 17, 2018  |  By UNLV News Center
two women and a man in breezeway

Graduate students Jenna Webb, left, and Neyda Aleman-Becker help local organizations address issues such as homelessness through UNLV's Nonprofit, Community, and Leadership Initiative. They are pictured here with John Wagner, director of community relations for the initiative. (Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services)

Editor's Note: 

This story was contributed by Ashley Jagodzinski.


Nestled among the modern steel high rises and flashing neon lights of downtown Las Vegas, a stark white, one-story building with red clay-colored shingles stands out. Here, in the Historic Fifth Street School, graduate students at UNLV’s Nonprofit, Community, and Leadership Initiative (NCLI) are helping tackle the city’s biggest issues.

NCLI was established five years ago to serve nonprofits and local governments by connecting to the service, research, and training resources of the university. More recently, the NCLI has partnered with Credit One Bank to fund two community graduate research assistants (CGRAs).

The assistantships provide stipends and cover tuition and fees while the CGRAs complete their studies and work on NCLI projects, gaining real-world experience and forging relationships with community leaders along the way.

“This kind of hands-on experience enables you to understand what it means to be a community outreach assistant,” said Neyda Aleman-Becker, a first-year CGRA who is pursuing a master’s in public administration.

Second-year CGRA Jenna Webb, a master’s student in public health, noted one advantage she’ll seize as she moves on in her career. “In an interview, if you are asked, ‘Have you ever done this?’ the answer will be, ‘Yes,’” she said.

Since the program’s inception, CGRA alumni have gone on to work for NASA, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Andson Money, and Applied Analysis.

“The assistantship creates opportunities and the ability [for students] to demonstrate expertise in their disciplines,” said John Wagner, director of community relations for the NCLI. “And, they get seen.”

Webb and Aleman-Becker are central to much of the NCLI’s expanding programming. Through the Skills-Based Volunteer Program, they connect other UNLV students seeking career-building experiences with local nonprofits needing help in a specific area, such as data analysis, marketing, or grant evaluation. Through the Community Partnership for Opening Doors, they are tackling homelessness issues. And through the Nonprofit Accelerator, they help the staffs of local nonprofits collaborate, learn best practices, and receive expert coaching.

Though the NCLI is no longer affiliated with it, Webb and Aleman-Becker were also instrumental in the One Stop Shop, a collaborative project that opened in March and provides free services to at-risk individuals who may not have access to steady housing, healthcare, or mental health services.

“Our community hadn't ever come together to colocate these services,” Wagner said.

The NCLI also operates the Grantwell program at UNLV, a graduate course that teaches students about the grant-writing process and gives them an opportunity to submit real grant proposals. The senior-most CGRA runs the program, a valuable experience that directly enhances their project management skills and prepares them for future careers.

“When [our CGRAs] leave here, they are light-years ahead in terms of project management,” said Wagner.

Community graduate research assistants are funded by community partners in the private or public sectors or by nonprofit organizations. These partnerships allow organizations to support graduate students working on cutting-edge research, scholarship, and creative activities. For more information, contact the UNLV Graduate College at 702-895-3429.