Whitney Roberts, Director of Civic Engagement and Social Innovation, Center for Social Impact, North Central College
March 5, 2018
To center or not to center? That has been, and continues to be, the question. North Central College’s Center for Social Impact, established in late 2017, was forged from decades of work across disciplines and departments to engage students, faculty, and community partners in the public purposes of higher education. It launched after careful consideration of both the positive and potentially negative associations of what a center might mean for our community- a hub versus a silo. The Center’s foundation is a strong partnership between Student Affairs and our Leadership, Ethics, and Values academic program, through which we deliver resources for civic engagement, social entrepreneurship, service, and activism in and out of the classroom. Our partnership has included connections to interdisciplinary coursework, immersion experiences, retreats, conferences, workshops, and student organizations- all focused on developing citizens and leaders who are committed to working for the common good. To help define our work, we developed our “Pathways to Social Impact,” which is modeled after the HAAS Center for Public Service at Stanford. We see these pathways as a framework by which students can understand the different avenues that can lead to making a difference with their lives, no matter their major or field of study. Our goal is that students envision lives as Scholars, Leaders, Servants, Activists, and Innovators. While we call these activities our pathways to social impact, they could also be seen as the pathways for building the civic ethos of our campus.
Beyond the Center’s core activities, the growth of a robust partnership with a second center, the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence (CAFÉ), amplifies our capacity to serve multiple campus stakeholders, specifically faculty members. As an institution, our collective goal is to reach every student with Community Engaged Learning opportunities. Community engaged learning is a high-impact learning practice that has been identified by our faculty as a shared priority. This shared goal led to the creation of new General Education learning outcomes and a new curriculum, which is currently in development. Our hope continues to be that through the collaborative work of these two centers, students, staff, faculty, and community members would receive the benefit of strategically leveraged resources, expanded course offerings, stronger community relationships, and better engagement data.
We utilize Senge’s (1990) framework of “learning organizations” and Kuh’s (1996) concept of a “seamless learning environment” as guiding aspirations for our work. We also embrace principles of good practice for Community Engaged Learning and glean insights from the research on building and sustaining partnerships that situate Academic Affairs and Student Affairs as co-teachers and co-learners with the wider community. As we continue to learn important lessons from our mission-driven endeavor, we hope to contribute new perspectives and understandings to the literature on how centers—as easily-identifiable, carefully structured, collaborative hubs for related sets of activities—can help foster integrative civic engagement. Additionally, we hope that our work will result in the ability to disseminate concrete strategies for leveraging existing campus culture and resources, while avoiding common pitfalls and communication barriers, to create a more vibrant and engaged campus. Our aspirations through the work of these two centers, both individually and collaboratively, is to create an innovative and high-impact educational ecosystem. The stakes for building civility among our students are high, and coalition-building work is hard. But we owe it to our students and our community to work together and find out what could be.
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