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Community Engagement

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The Potential Learning Benefits to Community Partnerships

If you want to integrate community engagement into your coursework, chances are you have a pretty good idea of how it might benefit the students in your course. Since there are many ways to engage with community partners – and many objectives that community partnerships can serve – courses across all disciplines can stand to benefit from engagement in multiple ways. When thinking through your curriculum, it may be helpful to consider the diverse spectrum of ways that students can benefit from community work. 

Sharpening Technical Skills 

Depending on the type of organization, students may have opportunities to apply and develop technical skills that they’ve been taught through coursework. Many organizations rely on technical work to carry out necessary functions, such as accounting procedures, database management, grant writing, and more. Engagement opportunities can help students develop these skills in a real-world context, and coupling this technical work with class-based reflective exercises, journaling, or other writing assignments can reinforce the learning process. 

Sharpening Writing and Critical Thinking Skills 

Across the disciplines, the applications of writing are invaluable to a community engagement experience. Writing can serve as a way for students to reflect on their engagement experience, or can even be applied as a service the students contribute to the partner organization. The Service-Learning course is a best-practice pedagogical model that incorporates these varied applications of community-based writing. 

Developing Robust Skills in Intercultural Collaboration 

Working with the community through community-engaged coursework offers students a great opportunity to develop and become comfortable with intercultural communication and collaboration. It moves students from the position of mere commentator on socially relevant concepts and knowledge to that of an active collaborator who puts those concepts and knowledge into action alongside community partners of diverse cultural backgrounds that might be underrepresented on campus (Addler-Kassner, Crooks, and Watters, 1997, p. 5). 

Planning Community Partnerships

Integrating community engagement into a course takes planning, communication, adaptability, and care. Although there are many potential benefits of community-engaged coursework, there is no “one size fits all” approach to ensuring that it is successful for all parties involved. This resource is an instructor’s guide to each phase of planning for community engagement and navigating community partnerships. 

Identifying an Engagement Approach and Potential Community Partners

You’ll first want to determine how you’d like community engagement to fit into your class. Do you want students to complete some kind of project with a community organization? Conduct volunteer hours outside of class? Will the engagement take place throughout the semester or just for one unit? With the benefits of more purposeful and valid instruction through background design, it's important to consider what form of summative assessment you'll use for students. With this in mind, you can create strong formative assessments that scaffold their learning so they are able to achieve the course goals. These students' assessments might also inspire ways to approach assessment of the partnership itself. Working with your partner, having an assessment plan before you officially start the project will protect both parties and make sure their priorities are valued in the evaluation throughout the project's lifespan. To learn more about feedback and assessment strategies, visit Instructor's Guide for Giving Feedback.  

Based on your needs for the class, identify the types of organizations that would be most appropriate to seek out as partners. These might include: 

  • Organizations that need regular volunteers 
  • Organizations with a focus matching the topic of the course 
  • Organizations that might need the type of work you’d like to teach: for example, a website or marketing campaign 

If you’re flexible about the organization(s) you partner with, another fruitful strategy for identifying potential partners is to talk to colleagues also engaged in the community. See if your school has engagement/service-learning office. Picking up partnerships already established by others can facilitate the collaboration process and help to sustain valuable academic/community relationships. If you live in the same community where you are seeking to engage, relying on your own network(s) in that community to identify potential partners can also provide an intuitive strategy for engagement. While it is important for instructors to identify attributes of organizations that might be appropriate to work with, it’s equally important for instructors to identify aspects of their course that make it a “good fit” for community partners. The following considerations may be helpful when making this decision: 

  • Does my curriculum allow for community partners to play a role in determining “outcomes”? 
  • Does my course require a needs-based relationship with an outside organization, or can the nature of the relationship be more flexible? 
  • Does my curriculum integrate critical instruction that will prepare students to go about community-engaged work in an ethical, respectful, and caring way? 
  • Do I have the capacity to manage university/community partnerships in a caring, collaborative, and conscientious way? 

Since the history of university/community partnerships has been bumpy, instructors need to take great care in initiating and/or maintaining relationships with community partners. An awareness of how power plays a role in relationships between universities and community organizations is vital. 
Student-initiated partnerships: You may be interested in giving students more independence to form their own community partnerships. This can help with student buy-in, but new partnerships can also be challenging to navigate, even for instructors. Students may struggle with coordinating projects, follow-through, and professionalism in an off-campus setting. If working with college freshmen or younger, it’s strongly recommended that the instructor at least pre-coordinates with potential partners, provides a list of possible partners to students, and/or encourages students to work with campus groups or organizations they are already affiliated with. More advanced students may be better equipped to seek out new community partnerships by following this resource with instructor guidance. 

Since community-engaged work is intentionally set in an off-campus context, “professionalism” may look different than it does on campus. Whether it be differences in dresswear, language use, or social/cultural customs, students should be prepared to approach community partners in a respectful, engaged, and understanding manner. Encouraging students to meet prospective community partners where they’re at may help them not only establish a rapport, but also cultivate a robust skillset in intercultural communication that will serve them well outside of the course. 

Initiating a Partnership

After your initial research, reach out to an organization you’d most like to work with by email or phone. Introduce yourself, your course, and potential partnership interests, and request a meeting in person if possible. It’s ideal to start contacting potential partners at least a month before the course starts to give you plenty of time for planning and reaching out to multiple organizations if needed. 

If you intend to integrate community engagement into your pedagogy long-term, it may be productive to develop deeper relationships with community organizations. Relationship-building extends beyond the purview of any single course and may require regular correspondence that develops outside of the boundaries of any formal agreement. Even further, long-term relationships with community partners may develop beyond the “formal” role with which you enter them (i.e., “university instructor”). The most important consideration when working with a community organization is how to establish a trusting, reciprocal relationship.  

University/community partnerships don’t exist in a vacuum, and the lasting effects of these partnerships do not end at the expiration of a formal agreement. From the very start, these partnerships become part of an existing social history within the community (Linda Flower and Shirley Heath, 45) that may include narratives that interpret privileged institutions, such as a university, as sources of inequity within the community. Historically, universities have contributed harmful disruptions in many communities including gentrification, displacement, and overwhelming influence on local policy and governance. For this reason, it is important for instructors, students, and any other university personnel involved in community-based work to view themselves as stewards of the relationships that they cultivate. 

Setting Expectations

Upon meeting with the organization, collaborate to determine how the goals of the course align with the goals of the organization. If the organization doesn’t have a readily identifiable purpose for collaboration, sharing examples of goals, activities, or projects for the course can help spark thinking about what a good fit might be. 

During this phase, it is important to avoid the assumption that your prospective community partnership should be needs-based. In some cases, an organization may be well-resourced and well-equipped to carry out its purpose, or may not view a university affiliate as the appropriate partner to address needs the organization does have.  Beyond need, your dialogue with the organization may lead to a collaboration that serves another goal altogether, such as: 

  • The co-production of new knowledge 
  • The expansion of an organization’s mission or purpose 
  • The enrichment of students as community members 

This pre-partnership dialogue may also be an opportunity for students to join the collaboration process at an early stage. Whatever you decide, it’s ethically imperative to make sure the partnership is reciprocal, benefiting both the community organization and students. 
It’s also important at this stage to set realistic expectations about what each partner will be able to contribute. Be sure to talk through the following questions: 

  • If completing a project, what quality and scope of work can you realistically expect to be produced? Will this level of work truly be useful to all partners involved? 
  • Does each party have the capacity to dedicate a reasonable amount of time to the partnership? What amount of time is “reasonable” for each partner? 
  • How often can the organization, instructor, and/or students realistically meet or touch base throughout the partnership? How deeply involved will each partner be at different stages of the project? 
  • Depending on the level of commitment expected from each project partner, will compensation need to be arranged? If so, how? 

Be sure to follow up your first meeting with a correspondence reviewing what was discussed, so that each party stays on the same page and has equal access to the project’s documentation. If all parties agree that a formal partnership is most appropriate, a common document to formalize the partnership is an MOU. An MOU is a brief contract laying out expectations for each party. You may want to do this with students once the course has begun. 

Underlying all communication with a community partner is the necessity of establishing trust. In order for a partnership to be productive in the short-term, and even sustainable in the long-term, each party has to enter the partnership in good faith. For students and instructors, this means respecting the autonomy, resources, and expertise of the community partner just as much as the university with which you are affiliated. Avoiding transactionalism by cultivating a meaningful relationship with your community partner can help students see community engagement as an enriching experience that benefits them beyond the goals stated in the course. 

Developing the Course

Once you’ve laid the groundwork for your partnership, you’ll want to return to your course plans to solidify details: 

Engagement parameters: Articulate for students the connection between course goals and the community engagement requirements. For project-based engagement, it’s a good idea to establish some structure to guide students, but also leave room for flexibility as the project develops. For volunteer-based engagement, be sure to set clear requirements for scheduling and reporting time. In either case, it is also important to provide students with resources that prepare them to do community-based work in a respectful, reciprocal, and caring manner. This will also require you to conduct an appropriate level of research to prepare yourself as both an instructor and an equal partner in any proposed collaboration. 

Reflection: Reflection is a key component for students to connect their community engagement with the goals of the course. What this looks like will vary based on your class: do you want students to write progress memos for projects, keep journals about their personal response, discuss how things are going in class? Do you want them to reflect critically on the systemic social, economic, or political context of the community-engaged project? Depending on the purpose of the engagement and the content of your course, a reflection exercise may be one activity among others that students complete in order to derive meaning from their engagement work, and critical reflection can help students become aware of any issues of social justice that may give rise to their project in the first place. For resources on how to go about critical reflection, visit the critical reflection page.

Checkpoints: Based on the expectations that you set with your community partner(s), identify major checkpoints for the partnership and build an accommodating course schedule. Be sure to report these checkpoints back to your community partner if not already established. 

Concluding the Course and/or Partnership

At the end of a course and/or partnership, it’s important to bring a sense of closure. A final event is often a nice way to solidify outcomes of the collaboration as well as have a bit of social celebration time. For students, final reflections or letters to the community organization can be a useful and satisfying way to draw final lessons and appreciation of the experience. 

For instructors, the end of a course is also a time to evaluate whether and how the partnership might continue. Sometimes there is a clear next step or course, and sometimes there isn’t--and that’s okay. What’s important is to end the collaboration on a positive note and follow through on final commitments, including any that may fall beyond the end of the course. Often, new opportunities may present themselves at a later time, so determine how best to keep communication lines open and pass information along for potential future collaborators. 

Assessing the Outcomes

Assessing the outcomes of a university-community partnership can be tricky business, as each project partner may bring a different understanding of the partnership’s overall impact to the table. Any assessment mechanism used should account for the diversity of perspectives on the project team, including those of students, faculty, community partners, and any other relevant party included in the project. To gain a more holistic understanding of the project’s impact, it can also be useful to think beyond the intended goals or outcomes of the project to any unexpected outcomes that may have been produced.  

Thinking beyond specific outcomes, a project can also be assessed according to the perceived quality of the relationships between the project team. Even if each party agrees that the team’s shared goals for the project were satisfied, each project partner may have a different perspective on the team’s working relationship. An assessment of the relationships formed through a university-community project can help inform the approach of future projects in a way that promotes an equitable, respectful, and mutually beneficial dynamic between the university and surrounding community. 

Among community engagement and intervention professionals, it is considered a best practice to perform continuous assessment throughout the life of the project (Kellogg Foundation). Critically reflective exercises can be used as an aid for continuous assessment, given their analytical and action-oriented nature. Even more than assessing the progress and quality of a project, continuous assessment can also allow the project team to resolve issues, reevaluate goals, and modify the project design as needed in real-time. This allows for a responsiveness to the often unanticipated (or unavoidable) challenges that are common to university-community work. 

Helpful Links 

W.K. Kellogg Foundation Assessment Handbook 


Adler-Kassner, Linda, Robert Crooks, and Ann Watters. (1997). Service-learning and composition at a crossroads. In Adler-Kassner, Linda., Robert Crooks, and Ann. Watters (Eds.), Writing the Community: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Composition. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education. Print.