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Meet City Hall Fellows Making an Impact in East Austin


Every fall semester, a group of students across all disciplines learn how to become civic leaders through service-learning in the Longhorn Center for Community Engagement’s Austin City Hall Fellows program. Advised by community and city leaders, as well as former fellows, they hone their skills in public service while making a positive impact on underserved communities. We caught up with several fellows to learn more about their good work in East Austin, where they are working to provide access to education and health services.

Danielle D’Aguilar

image of studentPrograms and activities:  Financial Chair, UT SAAYA Bollywood-Fusion Dance Team; Spring, 2016 Intern, Interfaith Action of Central Texas; Hindi-Urdu Flagship Program, Department of Islamic Studies; Bridging Disciplines Program, Texas Undergraduate Studies

Speaking the language…Since she was a kid, D’Aguilar has been fascinated by other cultures. When she investigated her family roots, she found some Indian lineage on her father’s side. “I became very interested in Indian culture and wanted to learn the language. When you can speak the language, you get a deeper understanding of the community and how people interact with one another in a society.”

Going South…After her dad took her on a surprise trip to India, D’Aguilar came to UT Austin with a plan to study Hindi and Urdu. Though she’s living in the heart of Texas, she’s completely immersed in the South Asian world – dancing at national competitions with the Bollywood-Fusion Dance Team.

A full dance card…The hours of studying and rehearsing may sound daunting, but she takes it all in stride. “Dance practice is a stress release and everything just seems to balance out when I’m having fun with friends, getting exercise and using my creative skills. Plus we get to travel!”

New to the neighborhood…D’Aguilar found her niche while helping teachers in ESL classes for refugees in the Rundberg neighborhood. Yet when her internship ended, she felt that her work had only just begun. “I wasn’t ready to leave and kept thinking about the issues people were dealing with in that community.”

Picking up where she left off…When an adviser recommended the Austin City Hall Fellows program, D’Aguilar immediately submitted her application. Now into her second semester as a fellow, she is returning to the Rundberg area to help community members gain access to free and low-cost resources.  “I really love how this program is structured and how it pushes us to work with community members to come up with sustainable solutions that will improve their lives for years to come.”

Forging new partnerships…This semester, D’Aguilar and her team of fellows are partnering with the Housing Authority of Central Austin (HACA) to expand the reach of the Mobile Equity Program – a six-week training course that helps residents learn how to use technology to their advantage. After completing the program, the trainees receive a free smartphone. “HACA has incredible resources for residents – but the biggest obstacle is effectively showing them how to use and access these programs and services.”

Addressing the big issue…While attending Front Porch Gatherings, a series of community-wide dialogues hosted by the Community Engagement Center, D’Aguilar meets with residents, professors and civic leaders to address Austin’s societal problems. One particularly concerning problem, she says, is Austin’s dwindling African American population. “When I talk to people about their concerns, they’re most frustrated because not much is being done to keep Blacks here in Austin. It seems like a problem people don’t want to approach.”

Living to serve…“I’ve learned so much about the community and problems that exist outside my bubble—here in Austin and around the world. I can’t help but to dedicate my time to giving back and helping the people I’m meeting, even if it’s in a small, indirect way. I can’t image not being in this type of work.”

Getting her feet wet… Now more than ever, she is confident in her ability to succeed in a challenging, yet rewarding career in law.  “What I really love about this program is that it gives me a chance to understand local politics – and I get to meet city council members and citizens who are taking an active role in improving their community.”

Shadhi Mansoori

image of studentPrograms and activities: Managing editor of the Texas Undergraduate Research Journal; Clements Center Fellowship, LBJ School of Public Affairs; Liberal Arts Honors Junior Fellow; Polymathic Scholars Program, College of Natural Sciences

Fixing problems before they start…Mansoori’s passion for healthcare started in high school when she interned at a low-cost clinic for uninsured East Dallas residents. While attending patients with chronic illnesses caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, she saw a high need for preventive care.

Reshaping public health policy… Before pursuing her dream of becoming a physician, Mansoori plans to work in public policy to bridge health disparities. “I think it’s important for policymakers to have experience in a clinic in order to implement reasonable and effective public health policy.”

One size doesn’t fit all…. “I’m interested in specializing in lifestyle design – helping people find solutions for health problems in ways that work with their own lives. Telling someone to run every day is not a solution for everyone. I want to find solutions that are tailored to each of the patients’ lives.”

Meeting a need…Since Mansoori joined the Austin City Hall Fellows program in 2015, she has been working on a healthcare resources packet, a toolkit filled with information on how to access free and low-cost clinics and services. Before jumping into the project, she and her team wanted to make sure they were providing a useful service. “We had a lot of meetings with community members and civic leaders to make sure this is a community-identified problem, and that residents would be interested in having this packet.”

Lessons in leadership…Now she is mentoring this year’s group of fellows as they expand the project. While working with her mentees, she has found the learning process is mutually beneficial. “As a mentor, it’s really insightful to get to hear another group of students’ concerns about what’s happening in the community. It’s also a learning experience working with a motivated group of students who are bringing up questions that I haven’t asked before.”

A long road ahead…While listening to residents at community meetings, she is reminded of the work that still needs to be done in underserved neighborhoods. “Some people have problems I’ve never even imagined. I remember this one woman who talked about her father who ended up homeless because he was a convicted felon and couldn’t find employment. She has a lot of bourdon now because she’s struggling to take care of herself and her father. That’s one memory that will always stay with me.”

Change will come… Mansoori believes that in time, she and her fellow teammates will help bridge disparities in Austin and across the globe. “It was inspiring working with students from different majors and ethnicities – some will be the first in their families to earn a degree. I’ve learned that we can hold strengths from all these disciplines and create an effective team to do community work.”

Samuel Cervantes

image of danielPrograms and activities: Discover Law, Longhorn Center for Academic Engagement; Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program, Texas Blazers; Foundation Scholars Program, College of Liberal Arts; Office of Student Success and Recruitment; Public Policy Intern, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Legislative Intern, Texas House of Representatives

Setting the foundation…Cervantes was taught at a very young age to set his sights on college. With his mother’s best wishes in mind, he studied hard and made it into his dream school. “The idea of college was planted by my mother. She told me education is all she can leave for me—and that she would die happy knowing she gave me the best foundation for success.”

Destined to be a Longhorn…After participating in the Subiendo Academy, a summer outreach program for rising Hispanic leaders hosted by the McCombs School of Business, Cervantes fell in love with the university. “I felt very comfortable at UT and I like that it’s so big. I thrive from meeting different people who differ from my way of thinking. That’s how I grow the most.”

Gaining self-awareness…Early into his work with the Austin City Hall Fellows, Cervantes learned an important lesson that will live with him throughout his career in public service. “I have to always acknowledge my privilege as a college student—and that we can’t just swoop in like knights in shining armor and fix all their problems. It’s not what we want to change; it’s what the people want to change.”

Bridging the gap…During the spring semester, Cervantes is working on creating an academic packet for Spanish-speaking parents in the Rundberg neighborhood. The packet will include information on an array of resources—from bus schedules to applications for free or reduced lunches to extracurricular academic programming.  “Growing up in a Spanish-speaking household, I know there’s a disconnect between parents and schools. Hopefully this resource will help bridge that gap.”

Choosing the path of most resistance…”I believe that life is too easy, you’re not having fun. I’ve learned so much about myself when I’ve fallen than when I’m consistently happy. You can implement what you learned from failure into everything in life. That’s what makes you stronger.”

Life after UT…After graduation, Cervantes plans to take his passion for education to the next level by joining Teach for America. “There is some beauty in empowering people through education. Education is power. It allows you to liberate your mind, to be critical and to speak up for yourself and others.”