Strengthening Partnerships: Institutionalizing Community Engagement on Campus

Katie O’Malley, David Dessauer, Amory Baril, The University of Texas at Austin

September 29, 2016

In the field of student affairs, developing campus partnerships exists as an essential practice to the creation of successful campus programs. Many of us engage with internal and external partners to yield positive results that increase our human and organizational capital. In the area of community engagement, partnerships serve as the cornerstone of our missions and programs. At The University of Texas at Austin, we face the same challenges most large, public, research-focused institutions face: decentralization and siloed work efforts. In terms of community engagement, this often results in repetitive relationships with community partners. The Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and the Division of Student Affairs have worked hard to maintain connections and enhance communication within all layers of our organizational structures. By intentionally establishing internal partnerships that help our programs combine efforts to enhance community impact, we move ourselves from competition to collaboration. This choice allows us to continue exploring and building cross-divisional and community partnerships to not only enhance community impact but also institutionalize community engagement practices.

Major markers of success in our programs are the immediate and extended benefits that come from campus-based partnerships. In the case of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement’s Alternative Breaks (AB) program, we have been able to capitalize on interest from graduate students and staff in every area of campus that have prior service-based trip experience. Given the interest, we have opened up each of our trips to campus partners in some way, depending on their desired involvement level. For our San Francisco trip, focused on LGBTQA+ rights and advocacy, the Gender and Sexuality Center was actively involved in selecting the trip’s staff member, as well as the creation of the training curriculum for the trip leaders and participants. The success of this trip last year has led to access to a network of students we hadn’t been reaching, and an increased network of resources, but also a stronger connection to each others’ offices in general that has carried over to our other student-facing programs. For our Austin trip for first-year students, we have partnered with the First Year Experience office to be part of their curriculum from orientation to spring registration. Additionally, the College of Liberal Arts has supported the AB program as a whole, both financially and through an academic service-learning partnership with its Digital Storytelling program. For the past two years, students learning interview and storytelling skills through film have accompanied a trip, documenting the trip and producing a video demonstrating the impact of the trip on the community and on the participants.

In the Division of Student Affairs, The Leadership and Ethics Institute created ProjectLEAD to serve as a competency-based leadership development program to enhance project management skills for students while simultaneously serving as a mechanism for building community. As a year-long, cohort-based program, ProjectLEAD participants engage with university faculty and staff through weekly, curriculum driven workshops and small team advisory meetings. Grounded in Project Management and the Project Management Life Cycle, these co-curricular workshops and meetings are intentionally designed to transform the self-efficacy, collaborative spirit, and critical thinking of students so they can deliver results on projects created by our community partners. Research demonstrates that structuring programs in a cohort-based model that emphasizes interaction with faculty, staff, and community members, increases a student’s learning, development, and sense of belonging. Recognizing that these outcomes are shared across campus, The Leadership and Ethics Institute partnered with The Center for Professional Education and a certified Project Manager when designing the curriculum, to enhance the Project Management components of the program and to connect students to an expert in the field.

Partnerships serve as the foundation for constructing new programs and initiatives across our campus. By exploring programmatic opportunities rooted in shared campus and community responsibility, we are building a pipeline for our students to develop as civic-minded, socially responsible leaders. As we seek to institutionalize community engagement at The University of Texas at Austin, we hope our assessment practices of continuous improvement will enable us to grow and improve our effectiveness.

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