This project examines the role that community engagement plays in enhancing students’ educational success, with underrepresented students as a primary focus. Specifically, the project investigates the relationship between students’ involvement in a variety of community engagement experiences (e.g., service-learning, community service) and students’ academic performance (grade point average), academic progress (units completed), and college completion. In addition, the project explores the relationship between community engagement participation and several mediators of student success, including sense of belong, boundary spanning, and academic engagement.
The changing nature of community-university relationships
Historical models where universities come in as experts and problem solve for communities are fading. Such approaches do not acknowledge the expertise and knowledge that reside outside of the academy, nor do they adequately engage communities as partners committed to the success of the university created approaches. Instead, they reinforce ideas of university experts as outsiders who come and solve problems as intellectual exercises, writing up their experiences for their colleagues. The First in the World project challenges these traditional approaches to community outreach and recasts community-university partnerships in a way that is more with missions of universities to address societal challenges and problems in more collaborative, meaningful, and sustainable ways. The prevalence of this more collaborative, mutually beneficial approach to community-campus partnerships is increasing as universities find their places in societies of an information and urban age. In part, the role of universities has been defined externally, as critics of universities raise questions about whether or not the research produced by universities, and particularly public universities, is worth the public investment. The response we provide to those who raise such issues is that universities have always created knowledge that enhances the public good. But now, our approach is to incorporate more fully the participation of community partners in developing, implementing, and assessing university’s partnerships with communities.
Best practices for student-community engagement
We believe that institutions of higher education can be more effective in helping students bridge the cultural campus-community divide by building and engaging more deeply in partnerships with diverse sets of communities, those that represent students’ backgrounds as well as those that expand students’ horizons. We also believe that students from underserved communities need to see colleges and universities as places that address important societal issues that are meaningful to them. We believe that campus climates that offer such engagement can help students who aspire to make the world better see higher education as a place to fulfill their goals and dreams. Through the engagement of students in community-based learning and broader community engagement efforts, colleges and universities can offer academically-based, community-engaged learning opportunities that allow students, especially underrepresented students, to bridge the campus-community cultural divide and to connect their studies with their lives.