How can students help put community engagement on solid ground?

Lately I have been having in-depth conversations with former students and professionals from community organizations who have been involved with UBC’s Community Service Learning (CSL) efforts. Hearing people talk about the impact of their experiences has prompted me to question some of the assumptions I have been making about how to most effectively institutionalize activities like CSL.

CSL began emerging as a force in Canada about ten years ago. Thanks to the support of the JW McConnell Family Foundation, the field in Canada has developed significantly in the past several years. Ten universities were funded to build CSL programs and many others benefited from the spin-off effects of the McConnell Foundation’s investment in CSL (e.g., the increased profile for CSL, the development of an expanded pool of experienced practitioners, and access to events hosted by the Canadian Alliance for Community Service Learning. There are now more than thirty colleges and universities in Canada with CSL programs.

With the natural evolution of CSL programs and the ending of the McConnell CSL grant program, the focus seemed to shift from the kind of innovation associated with program initiation to a focus on the institutionalization of CSL. The attention of many in the field (including me) turned towards the academic legitimacy of CSL and its adoption as a strategic priority in the post-secondary sector. Champions of CSL seem to be concentrating on activities such as securing ongoing funding for their programs, demonstrating the impacts of CSL using rigorous research methods, and trying to change promotion and tenure policies so that faculty participation in activities like CSL is recognized as legitimate scholarly activity.

But my recent conversations with former students (now alumni) and community professionals reminded me that the wellspring of the vitality of work such as CSL is the connection that students make with people in the community. I was reminded that the success of UBC’s CSL programs was founded on the momentum generated by students telling each other how much fun they were having and how much they were learning. The initial resistance in the Downtown Eastside to UBC’s presence there dissipated partly because the students who came to the neighbourhood to volunteer were such great ambassadors. Community organizations became committed partners because of the valuable, sometimes highly creative work that students accomplished. It was students talking passionately about their experiences in the community that often convinced administrators and donors that CSL was worth supporting. Even the involvement of faculty was sometimes the result of students brokering relationships between particular professors they thought would be receptive to CSL and Learning Exchange staff.

As I reflected on the role of students in the evolution of CSL at UBC, I realized that I, for one, had stopped thinking about how students could be allies in the evolution of CSL once the emphasis shifted to the need to make an academic case for the merits of CSL. I assumed that faculty members were the only ones who could make the argument that CSL should be institutionalized as an academic priority. But now I wonder if this is really true.

Are there ways that the enthusiasm and creativity of students can be enlisted in the move to institutionalize CSL and other forms of community-university engagement?  What role might students play now that would be analogous to the crucial role they played in laying the foundation for CSL?

My experience suggests there are five factors that can facilitate the institutionalization of CSL: credible evidence of efficacy; pressure from people or groups with influence; fit with other institutional strategic priorities; funding; and ease of adoption. Students who have done CSL can potentially influence all five factors.

In this context, “students” refers not only to current students but also former students, now alumni. CSL programs of several years duration will have created a substantial pool of young adults who could conceivably become champions for community-university engagement. For example, more than ten thousand students have taken part in CSL at UBC alone. They and others like them across the country could be a powerful force for change.

Alumni who value the contribution CSL made in their lives can become donors who support CSL programs. Even small monthly contributions from a number of alumni could help sustain specific elements of a CSL program. Alumni can testify to the impacts of CSL, including offering qualitative evidence of its long-term effects on their lives and careers. (I have been hearing stories from alumni who did CSL many years ago that would impress the most skeptical administrators and professors.) Alumni have the potential to influence institutional policies and priorities, especially if they present their case with a collective voice. In addition, current student representatives on institutional governance bodies such as Senates, Boards of Governors or Trustees, and Departmental committees can advocate for the relevance of community-university engagement to existing strategic priorities as well as argue for the adoption of new priorities.

Perhaps the most fruitful avenue for engaging alumni is to get them involved with current CSL students as mentors, leaders of group reflection sessions, project advisors, or bridges to community organizations. The experience of universities who have tried this approach indicates that alumni can make important contributions to the effectiveness of CSL programs or courses. Getting alumni directly involved with current CSL initiatives also could lead to their involvement in the other areas noted. They might become donors and advocates.

The more radical musing that my recent conversations provoked relates to the way I and others in Canada have been conceiving of CSL. To varying degrees, we have adopted a model for CSL that was developed in the US where significant government funding has supported service learning for decades. However, with perhaps a few minor exceptions, government funding has not been available for CSL in Canada. This situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. But the model we have been trying to replicate is personnel-intensive and therefore expensive. It has resulted in a preoccupation with finding funds to hire professional staff and developing incentives that will engage faculty.

What if a group or network of alumni with CSL experience were to sit down literally or virtually and put their minds to the questions of what the key elements of high-impact CSL are and what alternative models for their implementation might be conceivable? What innovative ideas for ways to connect students and communities with shared goals around learning and service might emerge from this or other opportunities to rethink the way we do CSL?

To read my other blog posts on community-university engagement, go to Taking the Plunge.