Division of Community Engagement Marks Continued Growth and Impact in 2018-19
By Jenny Pedraza
The Division of Community Engagement (DCE) has announced key measures that showcase continued growth in community engagement over the 2018-19 academic year. Areas of focus included supporting faculty in their community-engaged teaching and scholarship; growing experiential learning opportunities that allow students to engage with the community; and building sustained community-university partnerships.
In June, Cathy Howard retired from her post as Vice Provost of Community Engagement after 31 years at the university. Howard served as an integral force of connection between VCU, its surrounding neighborhoods and the greater community. Her legacy continues as VCU units across campus prepare to build on the many successes in community engagement seen in the 2018-19 academic year.
Sixty-seven people, representing more than 40 VCU units and five external organizations, attended the 7th annual VCU Community Engagement Institute held May 14 and 15 on campus. As the DCE’s flagship training opportunity, the free institute allows attendees to learn in collaboration with a diverse group of both on- and off-campus stakeholders and earn a certificate of completion at the end of the two-day training.
Through interactive workshops presented by 18 scholars, institute participants explored the power and potential of community-academic partnerships from a variety of angles, focusing on best practices for community-engaged teaching and research. This year’s keynote speaker was Gerry Moeller, M.D., director of the Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, who is harnessing community-academic partnerships to move the needle on the opioid epidemic.
During its May 1 “Celebrate VCU with the Community” annual event, the VCU Council for Community Engagement recognized four outstanding university-community partnerships. The Carver Tree Project was the overall Currents of Change winner.
Businessman and philanthropist Steve Markel, who works to develop North Church Hill, was the celebration's keynote speaker. Attendees also heard a performance by the RVA Street Singers, a community choir for those affected by homelessness in the Greater Richmond area.
Service-Learning on campus continues to deepen in quality of community partnerships and in teaching and learning outcomes. At VCU, 72 percent of service-learning students graduate in five years or less, compared to 62 percent of non-service-learning students.
“As a pedagogy and approach, service-learning is an innovative, high-impact experiential teaching practice that really embodies our division’s goal of reciprocity and mutual benefit,” said Katie Elliott, associate director of service-learning. “Service-learning classes give students real opportunities to engage in experiential, community-engaged learning and to reflect on and learn from those experiences. They also offer community organizations a way to harness the pretty amazing energy and abilities of our students and faculty, and use those abilities to help them do the amazing work they’re already doing.”
More than 3,660 students enrolled in 230 service-learning course sections taught by 134 faculty in the 2018-19 academic year. Students provided more than 73,000 hours of service. Twenty faculty members received service-learning grants, fellowships or other financial support from the DCE.
Meghan Mack, ’19, a service-learning teaching assistant and service-learning student award-winner who worked extensively with the RVA Street Singers, said her experiences in service-learning have impacted her development personally and professionally.
“I have gained valuable leadership skills and have become very aware of my leadership strengths and also learned about my values and what is important for me in my future career, such as working for a company that gives back to their own community,” Mack said. “One of the biggest takeaways I have had from this experience is the realization that I have so many more similarities than differences with the community I serve. I have fully adopted the importance of social justice, now understanding that it is not just about equality for all, but more importantly equity for all.”
The DCE’s living-learning program, ASPiRE, will welcome 187 students this Fall. The program works with 30 sustained community partners focused on accessible and affordable housing; community building; education and workforce development; environmental sustainability; and health and wellness. In 2018-19, ASPiRE students provided 8,600 service hours.
“ASPiRE students are everywhere,” said Erin Burke Brown, ASPiRE director. “They are participating in activities across campus as ambassadors giving tours, working the desk in the Commons, training folks in the gym, interning at organizations, leading first-year students as orientation leaders and serving as RAs. I can never walk too far across campus without spotting an ASPiRE student engaged in the VCU community. Their involvement shows how committed they are to making it real and having an impact.”
Burke Brown notes that the ASPiRE program has made a name for itself locally because of the program’s sustained commitment, providing reliable, responsible volunteers and dedicated staff leadership. Nationally, other universities look to ASPiRE’s program as a model to other learning-learning programs due to the number of students involved and the two-year length of the program. ASPiRE students come from all majors, which has been of considerable interest in the national living-learning industry.
In October, the Mary and Frances Youth Center (MFYC) hosted “Game. Set. Youth” to celebrate the center’s 10th anniversary and highlight new youth initiatives from the Richmond Tennis Association.
“Our vision is to be a regional leader in university-community collaboration for positive youth development,” said Tina Carter, MFYC director. “We accomplish this by providing programming and training to enhance the lives of youth in the Richmond metro area.”
In the 2018-19 academic year, the MFYC provided 33 weeks of programming, serving 631 youth, representing seven cities and counties in the greater Richmond region. Approximately 780 individuals were trained on youth safety and protection. Twenty-five youth-serving agencies in the region participated in the Youth Program Quality Intervention (YPQI) process, for out-of-school-time service providers across the region. YPQI is operated in partnership with The United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg.