Each issue we highlight university units that contribute significantly to civic engagement efforts on campus. It would only be appropriate then for our first issue to spotlight Illinois State University’s new hub for civic engagement: the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning.
The brainchild of President Larry Dietz, the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning opened in 2016. It collaborates with several units across campus including the Office of Sustainability and the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology to support students and faculty who wish to marry their learning and teaching with community action.
In the following Q&A, Interim Director Janet Paterson talks about why the center was formed and what it offers to students and faculty on campus and community agencies in Bloomington-Normal.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why was the center started?
In fall 2014, when President Dietz made his first State of the University Address, he highlighted those things that he wanted to pursue during his administration. The creation of a focused approach to our civic engagement value on campus was a primary issue that he listed. He even indicated the concept of some sort of center. Because he then later appointed a task force to look at the topic, he did not prescribe that the center approach had to be the outcome, but obviously, that was the result.
What is the center’s mission?
We want to provide opportunities for support and enhancement of service learning and community engagement both in the class and out of class for our students and to support our faculty who are developing courses and are choosing to use a service learning pedagogy in their class. In turn we want to form more formalized and ongoing partnerships with those entities in the community—social service agencies, governmental agencies, educational agencies—so we can help connect our students and faculty when they are looking for initiatives and projects with which to engage.
How does service learning fit with our motto to gladly learn and teach?
Service learning is a concept in which our students, through their academic pursuits and engagement in the community, get to work in an environment similar to what they may experience once they graduate from the University. By engaging in the community, they are able to practice and try the knowledge and the skills they are gaining in the classroom.
The service component of that is that whatever entities—community agency, schools—are the recipients of that expertise, that knowledge, receive a deliverable or an enhancement of what they are doing or an assessment of what they are doing. It’s this mutually beneficial interaction where the students gain an understanding of the community; the community is a beneficiary of what the students are learning and the knowledge being applied.
Is the center unique in higher education, or is there a model we are following?
We are very much based on a compilation of the best features of models found across the country. I would say that Illinois State has been engaged in its civic life, particularly of the state and the community, since its inception. The fact that we were a normal school, that is in itself was to better the community, to better the whole of society. So where that has been our practice all along, what is new is this concept of having a focused center where all sides of the formula can come together. The community now has a single touch-point with the institution. The faculty have additional resources for these endeavors. And the students have a contact point to connect them with faculty working on civic engagement or agencies that have a need.
This is something we find at other institutions around the country. But I would say our model has some uniqueness. One is we are a comprehensive center. We are not just a center for volunteer opportunities and we are not just a research center. We are not just a faculty support center. We are trying to do all of those things.
Also, the center is responding to, as well as supported by, both the Division of Academic Affairs and the Division of Student Affairs. There are probably a handful of schools that are modeled that way. Here, we are bringing together the cocurricular, out-of-classroom experience of Student Affairs and the credit-bearing opportunities within Academic Affairs.
When did the center open?
Initially, there wasn’t a physical space. The building (300 West North Street) became available to us in December 2016. This building had previously housed the Honors Program. And they had the opportunity to move to the Professional Development Building in order to acquire some much needed classroom space for the work they were doing.
At that time, the only individuals who were working at the center were myself; Christine Bruckner, our assistant director for assessment data management and grant writing; and our graduate assistant for marketing and social media. The three of us moved in December of 2016.
We were then able to hire our office support specialist, Brooke Marvin, in April. This summer, Harriett Steinbach, Annie Weaver, and their grad assistants moved over from the Dean of Students Office to the center.
Now we are complete in terms of our staffing. We have also been able to provide to the Stevenson Center an office for their graduate assistant who does Peace Corps recruiting.
Tell me what Christine is going to do in terms of assessment.
This is one of the big gaps that we know we have. We don’t have comprehensive data to know whether what we were doing is having the kind of impact that we hope it has. Is it worth the return on investment?
Is what we are investing in resources, people, money, and instruction accomplishing what is intended? Part of Christine’s role is to collect data from folks who are already assessing what they are doing. We hope that this data repository is useful for strategic planning purposes.
For us as a campus, it gives us a much better sense of this holistic picture of what we are doing, in class and out of class. And as a center, we will be assessing our programs and initiatives for their impact and for their outcomes.
Is the center supported by any grants?
We had an initial one-year grant from Illinois Campus Compact, and that money served as the basis for the cost of the task force and some of the initial things, like the purchasing of some of our research materials. We were able to renew it for a second year and continue to purchase resources for the center. I would also say getting the grant was important because it encouraged us as a campus to move forward. Someone had invested in us. That grant was very much about the creation of something to further our civic engagement work as a university. Right now, we have two small grants and a couple of proposals in the works.
We are at the capacity of what the University at this time is ready to allocate in terms of resources for our programs and staffing, so anything additional we want to accomplish we are going to have to generate new dollars in grants and gifts. In addition to Christine writing grants for the center, she is also sharing grant opportunities with others on campus that they may pursue.
Say a student just wants to find out what is happening in terms of civic engagement on campus, do they just call or come by the center?
First, we would encourage them to look at our website where there are a number of resources, like updated weekly listings of the volunteer opportunities. They can learn what the volunteer need is and which agency is seeking volunteers, and pursue those on their own.
If they would like to pair their learning with volunteer outreach, then I would recommend they come by and see us. Annie Weaver is taking the lead responsibility with volunteer opportunities for students. If they are seeking a service learning experience, like an internship or a practicum, then Harriett Steinbach is focusing her work on higher level learning with agency partnerships. Bottom line, if a student doesn’t find on our website what they are looking for, we invite them to make an appointment and come by the center.
What do you hope the center becomes?
Short term I think we have a lot work ahead of us in terms of just letting the campus know we exist, know what we offer in terms of supportive services, knowledge, and resources. We will be spending this coming year doing a lot of outreach, through presentations, through social media, and other ways.
A second thing we are certainly in the near term looking to do is to take a lead, for our campus as a whole, to apply for the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement. That is an optional designation given to universities across the country, and Dr. Dietz would very much like us as a campus to acquire that designation. Now, that’s not really the end goal, the designation. It’s what you have to be as an institution, it’s what you have to do, what you have to practice, what you have to support, that gets you this designation. Although we are working through the process for the next 12 months, to apply for that designation, getting it is the way of demonstrating that we have instituted those kinds of practices and priorities as an institution.
The third thing is we are trying to put in place are systems, processes, relationships, toolkits of support that create the foundation for where we can go next. In the longer term, we would very much like to develop a component of the center being faculty fellowships and undergraduate research scholarships. Meaning we would be able to provide some financial support to faculty and students to work with our center for a period of time, a semester or perhaps a year, on an initiative, a project, a research program, a publication, whatever it is we believe is the next step.
I want to reiterate the campus has been so supportive of creating the center. We are incredibly appreciative because this is a campus initiative and we will only be successful in promoting our core value of civic engagement if the whole campus gets behind it. We feel civic engagement at Illinois State is in a great place.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.