The term “community service” may often conjure images of volunteer projects, donation drives, and fundraising. Yet research on the procedures that govern our cities and towns, as well as the outcomes those procedures have on citizens, is just as critical to improving and engaging in our communities.
It’s that side of service that has earned Spencer Lawson a special recognition for his impact on the community.
He and three SPEA students will be honored for their commitments to community engagement on April 10. All four were awarded IUPUI’s William M. Plater Civic Engagement Medallion, named for IUPUI’s former Executive Vice Chancellor and Dean of the Faculties who was a strong advocate of civic engagement.
“Since my first day at SPEA, I consistently heard that SPEA IUPUI produces graduates who make a difference,” Lawson says. “SPEA alumni look beyond their own lives to engage communities through myriad civic-community engagement experiences.”
The Pittsboro native graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice in 2016 and his Master of Science in Criminal Justice and Public Safety the following year.
He now works as a research assistant in the Center for Criminal Justice Research at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute, focusing on prison re-entry programming, specialized problem-solving courts, and the link between substance abuse and criminal justice involvement.
Lawson says he thinks about how his work could impact his community every time he has undertaken a community-based research project.
“I actively sought opportunities to engage in community-oriented research that would produce actionable knowledge for local practitioners and criminal justice professionals,” he says. “Now that my time with SPEA is over, it is truly an honor to receive this recognition for my community-based research.”
While Lawson initially came to SPEA to pursue a career in law enforcement, he says it was faculty that helped steer him in the direction he needed to go. Advice from SPEA assistant professor Brad Ray would actually change the course of his career.
“He asked me if I wanted to engage in research,” Lawson recalls. “In the back of my mind, I wanted to explore a career in research, I just didn’t know where to start. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for Dr. Ray’s mentorship and seeing something within me that I didn’t even see myself. SPEA and its faculty have shaped me into the applied researcher that I am today.”
One important lesson Lawson has learned along the way is to never forgot that research subjects are more than just numbers in a database.
“These individuals are my neighbors, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters,” he says. “They are worth fighting for because they make my community diverse and wonderful. For formerly incarcerated individuals who want to change and break their cycle of criminal behavior, I want to ensure that Indianapolis has programming that is effective, client chosen, and culturally responsive.”
Throughout his career at SPEA, Lawson says there is one consistent theme for students: investing in one another is what makes communities strong and a place to call home. He says the time he has spent in SPEA also has helped him understand his place in the world of community engagement.
“I have a responsibility and commitment in my career to use the knowledge and skills that I have gained through my SPEA education to collaborate and build consensus with others to address social issues,” Lawson says.
That commitment will continue in the fall. He is planning to pursue his Ph.D. in criminal justice and criminology. But there was one welcome challenge before he could begin: he was accepted to three of his top schools – Michigan State University, University of Cincinnati, and University at Albany – State University of New York. In the end, Lawson has decided to head north to MSU to join the school’s doctoral program in criminal justice.
“At the end of the day, it is not about my accomplishments, receiving recognition, or even the products I produce,” he says. “While all of those are wonderful, the primary goal should be improving the community that you call home.”