If You Build It They Will Come

Ashley Farmer-Hanson, Assistant Dean for Student Life & Director of Civic Engagement, Buena Vista University

September 13, 2016

Community Engagement professionals across the nation have wanted to create campuses that have a culture of service. At most conferences and trainings, the topic is usually brought up that community engagement shouldn’t just be an academic stance or a student affairs initiative, but a university focus. It’s hard to come to terms with what this means and how to do that. According to the 2015, Annual Campus Compact Survey only 11% of Community Engagement offices report to both Student Affairs and Academic Affairs. 41% report to Academic Affairs, 33% to Student Affairs and 4% to the President’s Office. It’s hard to be everything to everyone, but creating a culture of service on campus involves everyone. If the Community Engagement office is housed in one area of campus the director is often working hard to reach across campus and to figure out ways to make it a university initiative.

There are multiple ways to approach changing a culture. Some offices work from the top down through the president’s office and others work from faculty. At BVU the students have always lead the drive to be an engaged campus. A lot of this can be explained through our founding as an institution and our motto of “Education for Service.” We have had the benefit of sticking to our roots and focusing on why our institution was established in the first place. In the early 90’s an official office was established. We have provided an office, director, budget and freedom to dream and create. Through establishing supportive structures the students have had the freedom to build engagement their way. They are they one’s talking about how their co-curricular engagement is impacting their classroom learning and how their classroom learning is easily applied to the service site. If campuses want to build a culture of service and it isn’t already a piece of the history they need to listen and empower those who understand that most students want to change the world through their future careers. They want their lives to be meaningful. Honestly, who doesn’t want to say they made an impact on the world?

Impact comes in different forms, but by providing them the tools and essentially building the support system we have created an atmosphere that is welcoming to new programs, classes and dares people to dream to solve real community issues.  We built the systems to support change and that is exactly what happened. When you live in Iowa and not that many films are made in Iowa you hear lines or quotes from that movie all the time. As in the famous film, “Field of Dreams;” “If you build it, they will come.” In many ways, this connects to creating a culture of Community Engagement on college campuses. Campuses have to be vulnerable, open and willing to let their students lead, to listen to the community needs and to be prepared to change systems that make community engagement difficult.

There are instances when tough conversations have to happen and a realization that not everyone will support the idea of community engagement. Students may show up wanting to be involved to build resumes instead of wanting to build community, therefore, it’s our job to take them through the developmental process to see that reciprocity is as important or more important. Community partners may have to share their struggles, frustrations, and even the reality that how volunteers are currently giving of their time is no longer needed. Community forums, brainstorming sessions and meetings in the dining hall may have to take place for this magical thing to happen that creates a community of itself.  Changing a culture is hard and challenging what everyone has ever considered the norm is even harder. Embracing, supporting and introducing new ideas is fun, empowering and makes us all better.

I challenge you to listen more to your students who are invested in community engagement. Help them tell their stories and begin to build your team of doers and dreamers. Embrace the moments that are uncomfortable and celebrate the small wins of culture shifts. Eventually, you will look back and see the impact on current students and community partners. Build it! I’m sure they will come. 

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