Higher education has been forced to cope with the uncertainties of the wrath of the pandemic in 2020. For many academics, this meant rethinking their approaches to teaching and learning, as well as the way in which key partners in the program. campus and community contribute to these processes. The pandemic has also led to the creation of programs to re-emphasize higher education civic engagement efforts.
While the notion of community engagement is not new, scalable approaches to community engagement are now more needed than ever as we move towards post-pandemic higher education. We need to re-imagine how such collegial and community partnerships can evolve to meet the changing needs of our institutions and the communities in which they are located.
At the heart of community engagement is the partnership between colleges and universities and local and surrounding communities, where both partners are deeply engaged in the sharing and dissemination of knowledge and resources. Such a partnership thrives when both members are engaged in activities which enrich scholarship, research and creative activity; that promote innovative teaching and learning pedagogy and practices; and who seek to develop educated and engaged citizens. When anchored in these fundamental principles, important results are achieved, including strengthened democratic values and civic responsibility, progress on critical societal issues and important contributions to the public good. Such high-impact programs are generally affordable, require little overhead, build on grassroots efforts, and offer immersive community engagement and significant practical value.
At Albion College, the Albion College Community Collaborative (AC3) seeks to encourage this evolution of community engagement. AC3 offers high-impact learning opportunities open to all students and faculty at Albion College, as it seeks to contribute to solving unscripted and real-life issues in service to our local and surrounding communities. Other notable organizations and programs advancing this commitment to the public interest include Campus Compact, a national coalition of higher education institutions committed to the public interest and strengthening democracy, and the Bonner Scholars program. , which can be found in establishments across the country.
Through these and other programs, we have learned lessons as communities and higher education seek to rebuild post-pandemic education. These lessons highlighted the need to broaden views on how and in what ways community engagement needs to be rethought in order to meet the needs of a democratic society in the 21st century, one in which citizens are committed and active in their co-creation.
Lesson 1: Engage students in the real world instead of forcing it to comply with academia. Community engagement efforts should operate outside the traditional boundaries of the academic calendar. While dedicated working time is required to manage student schedules, it is to be expected that students and community partners will regularly engage beyond class hours and academic calendars, working within collaboration and side-by-side in the field.
Lesson 1 in action: Customer engagement should reflect what is happening in the industry, minimizing the starts and stops that occur in conjunction with academic semesters or terms. For example, engagement with one of our community clients requires students to book and organize local artists, manage and market events, including social media, set up and take down stage equipment, and plan to perform. brings forward the next community event. These events take place in the evenings and weekends and during other non-classroom hours. Post-pandemic models of community engagement in which students work with community clients must be fluid and occur during a client’s business hours.
Lesson 2: Reframing student engagement in terms of development. Recognize that students, teachers and community partners are essential contributors to learning and development. Such reframing emphasizes the quality and content of relationships as important drivers of collaboration results. To achieve this goal, students and community clients must lead post-pandemic community engagement efforts, with the support of faculty leaders, and not the other way around.
Lesson 2 in action: In AC3, for example, students work closely with the Cutler Center for Student Success to help raise funds for the Student Emergency Fund. Their immediate goal has been to create a surplus policy and practice and to organize community events at which surplus items are available for sale to campus and community members. All proceeds go to the Student Emergency Fund, and the next step is to develop a more defined business plan that sustains the fund over the long term.
Lesson 3: Build student leadership paths inspired by management consulting firms. Such pathways allow students to engage in the long term with a community partner, developing skills in a substantiated way and gradually taking on more leadership and management responsibilities. Such pathways also create opportunities for peer mentoring.
Lesson 3 in action: AC3 students can register for the Learning Lab experience up to three times to earn academic credits. Laboratory designations correspond to professional titles that parallel the field of counseling. Students in the entry-level class are junior consultants and operate in a “learning by doing” environment that introduces them to the field of management. From there, students in a more advanced class take on the role of senior consultants and are guided by a ‘learning by doing and mentoring’ framework as they take on additional supervisory and advisory responsibilities for the consultants. juniors of the team while taking the lead in the subcomponents of client work.
Finally, the students of the high-level course play the role of team leaders and contribute through a “learning by leadership” approach. At the team leader level, students solicit community clients, manage project portfolios and mentor / supervise junior and senior consultants on their teams.
Lesson 4: Engage community partners and students to collectively tackle community-based unscripted issues. Such an approach requires students and community partners to identify relevant challenges and agree on a collaborative action plan.
Lesson 4 in action: Albion has many civically engaged residents and community organizations who meet regularly to discuss the needs of the community. To support our work, the meetings are now open to AC3 students and staff so they can learn, listen and contribute ideas as part of the community strategy effort. Participation in these meetings allows us to foster relationships with community organizations that have the potential to become clients and to identify future partners who can provide support to students and existing clients. Engagement at this level of strategy facilitates awareness of who is in the community, what their needs are, the role they can (and play), and the complementary connections within and between community organizations.
These lessons should broaden and improve conceptualizations of community engagement towards a more sophisticated approach that engages key stakeholders and takes into account the growth and development of stakeholders.
At the start of the pandemic, Christen Argoni, editor-in-chief of Liberal education, noted the importance of higher education in protecting democracy and preparing engaged citizens. Abraham Unger, director of urban programs and associate professor of government and politics at Wagner College, asked how such ideals can be achieved. His answer: a high impact civic engagement.
Such community partnerships do not only immediately benefit students and communities; they are essential for long-term economic growth and redevelopment. Improved designs of community engagement not only support student learning and development, but also enable them to engage in post-pandemic consultation and economic redevelopment. Community organizations play a central role in this approach, as they greatly contribute to student learning and ensure that we develop the next generation of engaged citizens.
The pandemic has had a huge impact on colleges and universities, and while tragic, it has given us the opportunity to adapt quickly and refocus on the vital missions of higher education. We need to anchor this adaptation in capacity building as we seek to address the community challenges that have arisen as well as to rebuild human bonds and strengthen our capacity to cope with continuous change.