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Tapping into the Student Voice: One Institution’s Effort to Listen More Deeply

January 19, 2018 Laura Wilmarth Tyna Lewis University

In community-based learning, professional staff members often seek out the voice of community partners to ensure that institutional efforts align with community goals. Similarly, we brainstorm with faculty and share ideas and best practices; however, are we also seeking such feedback from the students on our campuses who engage in academic community engaged learning?

During the spring of 2016, staff in the Office of Community Engaged Learning (OCEL) at Lewis University area began an initiative to develop a stronger student voice in the office. While staff were in frequent contact with faculty members and community partners, there was no natural method for learning more deeply about the experiences of students who were engaging in the community through their community-based academic experiences. It was a gap that staff found difficult to bridge.

With that in mind, the OCEL staff embarked on what would be a 1 ½ year adventure in researching, developing, seeking approval for, and launching an academic student leadership experience for undergraduate students. The initiative, the Community Engaged Learning Facilitator Program (CELF), was designed to support students as they collaborate with peers and faculty for academic community engagement, while also creating a space for students to formulate a personal philosophy of community-based leadership, expand their communication skills, and develop an increased sense of self-awareness.

These so-called “CELFs” enroll in a course that meets every-other week for 2 ½ hours to participate in activities and discussion focused on community engagement, leadership, and social justice. Simultaneously, students support a designated service learning course in which they assist with reflection, coordinate partner logistics, or generally offer assistance to their Faculty Partner. The program was officially launched during the fall 2017 semester and, this spring, will include 6 CELFs supporting 7 courses.

While the start has been small, feedback from Faculty Partners and CELFs from the inaugural semester was positive. More importantly the lessons learned from last fall have already helped OCEL staff, Faculty Partners, and returning CELFs to improve their work in individual courses and in the CELF program overall. That missing student voice, identified almost two years ago, is finally coming to the fore and it is exciting to discover the richness that CELFs can offer their peers and their partners in a way that’s so different from what a staff or faculty member might offer.

Questioning who is missing at the table has been a rich learning experience for all involved and a meaningful way to integrate the learning and insights of the very students who benefit from community-based initiatives at Lewis. It has allowed us to tap into a missing voice.