New initiative will prepare students for lives of civic engagement

New initiative will prepare students for lives of civic engagement

By Abra McAndrewStudent Engagement and Career Development
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Abra McAndrew, assistant vice president for access, engagement and opportunity
Abra McAndrew, assistant vice president for access, engagement and opportunity

The Association of American Colleges and Universities and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association recently announced the Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement Coalition.

One of its four strategic goals is collaborative problem solving to "prepare each postsecondary student … to work directly on selected public problems that society needs to solve." The public problems identified include racial healing, health, education, housing, climate, digital access, human rights and justice systems.

The Tucson and Southern Arizona communities provide rich context for this type of student learning. And the University of Arizona has a commitment to collaboration with the community and to student civic engagement through the 100% Engagement initiative. This initiative allows faculty and students to identify courses centered on community collaborations with course attributes of Community Partnership and/or Civic and Community Engagement.

Civic learning centered on authentic relationships that deliver on community expectations of mutual benefit demands more than these good intentions. It also requires deliberate practice and reflection. The actions that faculty, staff and students take to learn in the community produce consequences not only for our own immediate goals, but also for the collective progress and good will between the University and the community.

As one step to refine shared values and reflect on effective practices, I invite faculty, staff and students who collaborate with community partners to join a conversation about Growing Tomorrow's Community Leaders on Oct. 27 from 4-6 p.m. A panel discussion representing community organizations and the University of Arizona, hosted by the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona and moderated by community radio station KXCI, will address ways to create and sustain mutually beneficial partnerships for the civic education of today's students.

This event launches the University of Arizona's strategic initiative for Community Engagement through Experiential Learning. Over the next three years, we will work campuswide to expand formal academic trainings and capstones, internships, undergraduate research and co-curricular projects designed with direct community engagement as a signature element. Faculty, staff and community partners will develop shared tools and resources, strengthen collaborative relationships, and reflect on their community engagement practice with peers in regular workshops and conversations.

The initiative borrows a definition of community from the 2019 report "Places of Consequence: A Rapid Assessment of Community Engaged Student Learning at the University of Arizona," commissioned by Student Engagement & Career Development with support from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environmental and Social Justice and prepared by Kimi Eisele of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the Southwest Folklife Alliance. "Community" in this context means any entities, organizations, neighborhoods and people that exist outside of the University and within Tucson and other areas of the Southwest.

It's not easy to draw these lines. Many affiliated with the University, including more than 25% of undergraduates who attended a local high school, may feel a salient sense of belonging first to the community. Yet the Places of Consequence study reminds us that engaging the community as representatives of the University often carries "the legacy of extractive research, false promises, and perceived 'savior mentality' that might have once impacted or could still shape some relationships." Ultimately, the initiative aims to chart progress toward more cohesive, accessible and impactful collaborative problem solving with the community based in reciprocal and respectful relationships.

There are several ways to align with this effort to prepare students for lives of civic engagement that create positive change. Faculty interested in reciprocal community engagement pedagogy are invited to apply for the Experiential Learning Design Accelerator fellowship. Fellows and their community partners receive funding to support their time spent working together to generate learning objectives and outcomes, and in other practices to further sustainable partnership. The result will be a course based in direct community engagement offered to students. Students who completed courses designed by Accelerator fellows demonstrated improvement in their confidence and comfort with research methods, their belief in their ability to apply knowledge in practical settings, and alignment between their personal values and civic-mindedness. Applications are due Nov. 15.

Community organizations also have new opportunities to propose projects for interdisciplinary teams of students who will generate solutions. In addition, up to 20 community organizations will be offered an opportunity to enlist the support of a University of Arizona summer intern at no cost to the organization. 

Small grants for faculty are also available to offset the costs of supplies, equipment, student transportation or similar expenses related to experiential learning in the community.

I invite you to subscribe to our newsletter and visit the Community Engagement through Experiential Learning site to connect with these opportunities.

Abra McAndrew, assistant vice president for access, engagement and opportunity, has led the Student Engagement and Career Development office since July 2016. She is a first-generation college student with a bachelor's degree from Smith College, a master's degree from the University of Arizona College of Humanities, and an MBA from the Eller College of Management.

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