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Columbia Spectator Staff

In an effort to reach out to a sometimes skeptical community, Columbia has opened a new employment center with the promise of helping residents access University jobs more easily.

The Employment Center, located at 3180 Broadway near 125th Street, provides a location for community members to apply for non-faculty jobs at Columbia on a walk-in basis. Center staff members also help applicants prepare their resum�s and refer them to training programs if they are not qualified to work at Columbia. Since the center opened, over 400 community members have visited it, and about one-third of those have applied for jobs.

Before the opening, prospective workers interested in applying for jobs at Columbia went to the Human Resources department at the Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive. The old center placed less of an emphasis on reaching out to community members.

According to Wayne Francis, director of Community Employment Programs, the new center was designed to be more approachable for residents.

"By having a community-based center, we make [applying for employment at Columbia] a more transparent and easily accessible process," he said. He described the new location as "more centralized" in the surrounding community.

The center opened last December. It began with a modest opening, and it has gradually stepped up its operation; each week has seen a greater number of applicants. It will celebrate its grand opening until later this month.

Patrons of the center are first assessed to see if they are eligible to work for Columbia. Eligibility requirements include a high school diploma or GED, proficiency in English, and a working knowledge of the Internet. If applicants meet these requirements, they are then directed to Columbia's online application system, Jobs at Columbia, where they can search a database of available jobs to find ones that meet their qualifications and preferences.

But coming to the Employment Center does not provide any guarantee that community members will be hired for a job.

According to Francis, providing a welcoming environment is a central goal for the center. "Coming into the center gets you a little bit of hand-holding," he said, adding that the environment aims to bring "a human element" to the job application process. Among other things, Francis said, the center is intended to be an accessible venue for people who may not own or have much experience using computers. Staff members also provide information about education and training opportunities available to applicants.

To promote the center, administrators have been speaking at public meetings and with elected officials, as well as working with local employment organizations such as the Workforce 1 Career Center. "Most important was to bring down perceived barriers," said Larry Dais, assistant vice president for Government and Community Affairs, adding that many community residents regard the University as distant and unconcerned with their needs.

Another important part of the Employment Center's mission is to counteract this perception that Columbia is an institution indifferent to the needs of the community. According to Dais, this sentiment has been exacerbated by the University's proposed northward expansion.

"It's no secret that image-wise, people have different perceptions of the University," Dais said. "The image that some folks may have is incorrect. We are constantly trying to change that image by deeds and not words."

Still, according to Francis, "it's not going to be an overnight process of changing people's opinions."

Several center patrons, introduced by Francis, gave the center positive reviews. Susan Hurse, a 46-year-old who lives on 129th and Convent Avenue, came to the center to apply for an administrative job after finding out about it from Columbia's Web site. She described the application process as user-friendly.

Hurse also expressed suspicion toward Columbia. "I was wondering why they [Columbia] did it. ... I think it's a way they can maybe assuage their guilt," she said, referring to Columbia's planned expansion into West Harlem. "But," she added, "it gets people jobs."

Raul Mero, another applicant and a 30-year-old community resident who lives on Broadway near 124th Street, called the center "a great extension of a hand" by the University. He came to the center earlier this week looking for jobs in maintenance or student services, and also characterized the process as user-friendly.

Like Hurse, Mero expressed previous suspicion of the University, but he said that the Employment Center will "definitely" improve its image in the eyes of the community. While he said he's not yet sure how well it will work, "the idea, I stand behind."

Mero described the perception of Columbia in the community as a "blue monster" threatening to "take over." But he said that the Employment Center is "like Columbia saying, you can come with us. You can be a part of this expansion."

Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, Community Board 9 chairman, was more guarded. "It's a nice place," he said of the center. "We have a lot of people in this community who could be working for Columbia and aren't," he said. But he also added that he doesn't consider the center to be "anything of great importance."

So far, though, Reyes-Montblanc is suspending judgment. "I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic," he said. "I want to see."