Service-Learning Faculty Fellow Profile: Matthew James Vechinski

Using civic engagement as a platform to prepare students for success in college and future careers

Matthew James Vechinski

By Jenny Pedraza

“I knew coming to Virginia Commonwealth University that I wanted to teach service-learning courses,” said Matthew James Vechinski, associate professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry in the University College. “I believe strongly in experiential learning. It’s rewarding to see students connect issues beyond the classroom to what they are studying in their courses, and I know that community partners have needs that students can address in thoughtful, creative ways.”

Vechinski came to VCU in 2013 after earning his doctorate in English and textual studies from the University of Washington, Seattle. In addition to a focus on service-learning, Vechinski’s teaching draws on his interest in process-based writing instruction and communication design. His research in literary studies centers on authors’ relationships with editors and publishers, with a particular focus on writers of short fiction for American periodicals, as well as postmodern and contemporary experimental novelists.

This Fall, Routledge published Vechinski’s book, Twentieth-Century Century American Fiction in Circulation, on American linked story collections. He has also written on design, collecting and social media.

Vechinski primarily teaches the Focused Inquiry course, UNIV 200, a research and writing course for second-year students in all majors. A required core curriculum course for all undergraduates at VCU, UNIV 200 is centered on developing skills in written communication, argumentation, critical thinking and information fluency.

“Ask around and you'll learn quickly that this general education course is not one that students are initially excited about taking,” Vechinski said. “But students enrolled in my service-learning sections of UNIV 200 find it easier to get engaged in their research; they learn how to integrate personal experience into the academic exploration of issues; and they become better collaborators as they pick up essential professional skills.”

This semester, Vechinski is teaching UNIV 200 “Technology and Design for Social Innovation” as a service-learning course. Students in the course work with several community partners, including Circles RVA; Imperial Plaza; Opportunity, Alliance, Reentry; Peter Paul Development Center; and Resources for Independent Living. The partners serve populations who lack access to or familiarity with the latest technologies or face challenges in adopting it.

A portion of the students’ 20 hours of required service centers on addressing this “digital divide,” collaboratively designing a technology to achieve a particular goal that benefits their community partner. Students must apply their research to the design of their tool and tailor the solution to the specific situation, drawing on what they learned from their experience serving their partner.

This Spring, Vechinski will teach for a second time a special topics course UNIV 391, “Interdisciplinary Social Innovation: Designing Social Change.” Students will collaborate with peers from different majors, explore a community issue through service and design a project that addresses a challenge identified by a community partner. Students in the course have previously created an educational board game for Daily Planet Health Services; a mindfulness in nature experience for Go High Center for the Arts; and a database for resource sharing for Resources for Independent Living.

“Each semester, I watch as service-learning transforms how students engage with the course material and design and carry out their projects,” Vechinski said. “It provides an ideal civically-engaged platform to prepare students for success in college and the demands of later coursework and their future careers. But most importantly, service-learning makes students more empathetic. They can put themselves in others’ shoes, see their needs and understand their communities.”

In addition to enhancing his students’ learning and success, Vechinski credits service-learning with making him a more empathetic teacher as a result of helping his students to see the assets and challenges in the community.

“There are a lot more unknowns involved, and surprises can come up, and I've become better able to roll with the punches and problem solve, and I enjoy that variability,” he said. “In my teaching, I now emphasize how my courses offer students transferable skills and professional development opportunities to help students see that knowledge in a major is not all they need to be prepared for life beyond the university. I find myself rather often serving as a spokesperson for experiential learning.”

Vechinski’s “unofficial” spokesperson status became official this year when he was named a 2019-2020 Service-Learning Faculty Fellow. The fellowship program enrolls faculty members who have experience in teaching service-learning classes to serve as campus leaders in teaching excellence. Fellows collaborate with the VCU Service-Learning Office in the Center for Community Engagement and Impact (CEI) to deepen awareness and knowledge of service-learning pedagogy across VCU’s academic departments.

Vechinski’s fellowship represents a long history of engaging with the former VCU Division of Community Engagement (now CEI). Vechinski has served on the Service-Learning Advisory Council since 2014 and has been awarded Service-Learning Travel Grants to present service-learning scholarship at professional conferences.

As a member of the council and advisory committee for VCU REAL (Relevant Experiential and Applied Learning), Vechinski also works to establish a process for designating new REAL courses, exploring ways experiential learning might be embedded in existing and emerging curricula and helping develop student curricular incentives, such as distinction pathways, digital credentialing and/or certificates. REAL is university-wide initiative to help make experiential learning an integral part of the education of every VCU student.

“The university is making community engagement in research and teaching a priority, and I am continuously amazed at the depth of the resources available to faculty through the [Center for Community Engagement and Impact],” he said. “I have taken advantage of programming and grant opportunities, but it’s the people who are really the greatest resources. They don't push faculty through a preset structure but instead work with every teacher and researcher individually to understand their circumstances and needs. It’s about fostering mutually-beneficial university-community collaborations.”

For more information, visit VCU Service-Learning or contact Vechinski at mjvechinski@vcu.edu or visit his website.

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The 2019-2020 Service-Learning Faculty Fellows are Geraldine Lotze, teaching associate professor, Department of Psychology; Thea Pepperl, assistant professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering; Alexandra Reckendorf, assistant professor and associate chair, Department of Political Science; Matthew James Vechinski, associate professor, Focused Inquiry; and Jonathan Waybright, term instructor of Religious Studies and internship coordinator, School of World Studies.

The group’s focus will be outreach to faculty members who currently teach service-learning classes across a wide range of academic departments to offer consultation and professional development. By sharing their experiences and expertise, fellows will help co-create innovative solutions that support student and faculty success and that contribute to collective urban and regional transformation.

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