ICR student Rojas-Alvarez receives campus public engagement award

Jorge Rojas-Alvarez. (Photo by Michelle Hassel.)

Jorge Rojas-Alvarez, a doctoral student at the Institute of Communications Research in the College of Media, was honored with the 2022 Campus Excellence in Public Engagement Award for Graduate/Professional Students. The Campus Awards for Excellence in Public Engagement are given to individuals at the University of Illinois who engage the public to address critical societal issues, and include a $2,000 stipend.

Most notably, Rojas-Alvarez contributed to the 211/Champaign County helpline that connects individuals in need with local social service organizations. The project—called 211: The Role of Information Resources + Services in Crisis Response—is a partnership between the Community Data Clinic at Illinois; NCSA’s Students Pushing Innovation internship program; and the community organizations Champaign County Mental Health Board, Champaign County Developmental Disabilities Board, Cunningham Township Supervisor’s Office, and United Way of Champaign.

Rojas-Alvarez said this award motivates him “to continue working on these types of projects involving collaborations between universities and local communities” and the award underscores how “UIUC takes seriously the value of this kind of work.”

As part of the Community Data Clinic team, which is directed by Anita Say Chan, associate professor in the Department of Media & Cinema Studies and in the School of Information Sciences, Rojas-Alvarez focused on redesigning the Champaign County Resources (CCR) website with community partners. For more than two years, Rojas-Alvarez organized and implemented improvements to make the 211 service more accessible and navigable to users. 

Rojas-Alvarez organized and led information sessions with nearly 50 CCR service providers, and coordinated their web updates. He engaged Latinx groups during the process. He also led the web design team and mentored Illinois engineering students who were involved.

The CCR website is now managed by a community-based board and features new resources and community directories that are more visible to potential clients, and has Spanish and French language options.

“The multi-language feature was based on the growing immigrant population in Champaign County,” Rojas-Alvarez said. “Additionally, I found that immigrants and refugees avoided using the 211 directory because they believed such contact would expose them to immigration authorities. Unfortunately, the old directory did not identify organizations that accept participants despite their immigration status. Under my suggestion and outreach, the new directory provides immigrant-friendly services.”

According to his nominators, Rojas-Alvarez demonstrated a forward-thinking mindset and leadership by organizing partnerships, group services, research, and funding to benefit the surrounding community. 

Rojas-Alvarez draws inspiration from designing technologies for social change. His passion for community-building combined with his ability to identify growth opportunities has helped to serve Champaign County residents.

Rojas-Alvarez’s background is in computer science and history of technology. In Colombia, he helped design public history exercises in national libraries, which emerged as spaces of dialogue between historical documental archives and the memories of users. 

View University of Illinois News Bureau press release.

—Holly Rushakoff