We’ve all been there. We’re working on something we care deeply about, and we know it would be so much better if needed partners were at the table. For instance, we want to create an internship program because we know that students are clamoring for more hands-on experience and local employers stand ready to build a talent pipeline. Therefore we bring multiple parties together, discuss partnership possibilities, and identify some plausible next steps, but somehow our vision for the program never takes shape. If you’ve ever been frustrated by a scenario like this, I offer three things everyone in a campus setting needs to keep in mind as they form partnerships.
Call it what you will - community-engaged learning, service-learning, community-based participatory research or just collaboration - I care about partnerships. I was a first generation, low-income student that came to the academy with strong, existing ties to community organizations. I have always been surprised by how difficult it is for higher education and partners like nonprofits or businesses to work together in ways that are both respectful and reciprocal. I don’t mean to paint a completely dark picture; faculty and staff have created and sustained great, long-lasting external partnerships. This is evidenced by the research, service-learning and internship programs thriving at institutions. Despite success in these and more areas, there are still prevailing structures, processes, and actions at institutions that prevent us from fully maximizing the impact external partnerships can bring to our work.
Before coming to work as director of advising initiatives for NASPA, I served as the Director of Applied Learning at the State University of New York (SUNY), the largest comprehensive system of higher education in the nation. I worked with nonprofits and employers to create service-based and work-based programs. I worked with faculty - full and part-time. I worked with professional staff, students, boards of trustees and primary school teachers. All of these partners were different, but there are some basic lessons that cut across these relationships. Campus Compact, the national coalition of higher education organizations focused on community and civic engagement, has curated a cannon of literature on this subject, and here’s what I’ve learned on my journey:
As student affairs professionals and members of the academy, we have studied and trained to fully understand the how higher education works, as well as how to navigate our complex institutions. However, sometimes may we get accustomed to our own way of working. We might get comfortable speaking our own language and may be hesitant to do things in new and innovative ways. It’s important to remember that partnerships can bring a new energy, perspective and style to our work, and that partners can help us identify any taken-for-granted assumptions we may be making.
This means we must trust our partners and leverage their strengths and expertise. Our institutional knowledge and commitment to student success, combined with partners’ expertise and point of view, can coalesce to make great things happen for our students.
As a graduate student I conducted interviews with community partners about their service-learning partnerships. I heard some horror stories, from the well-meaning students making 500 PB&J sandwiches and dropping them off at community organizations unasked, to a student who suggested on their first day as a volunteer that they could run the community organization much better. This quickly forced me to learn that we need to reflect on our own motivations for partnering and co-create mutually beneficial collaborations with partners.
Do we think we’re going to go out and help? Who gets to decide that a partnership makes sense? How ‘baked’ are our ideas before we engage with our partners? What do our partners need from us? For example, after a disaster like hurricane Florence, some people clean out their closets and send clothing donations because they want to help, even though flooded areas have nowhere to put those donations and really need food and cash. Don’t get too quixotic about your partnerships or assume you know what the needs are. Partnerships are much better when both parties have a shared understanding what is being built, and why.
As is the case with many things, communication is key. For me, the most exciting aspect of partnering with folks outside of higher education is how much you learn. I have learned about timelines, budgets, leadership styles, and so much more.
We need to communicate about everything, all of the time. We have to talk about our values. There are also some critical questions we must answer with our partners:
Good communication also means creating and using language that takes into account each other’s context. It is not uncommon for partners to use the same words, but mean totally different things given their unique situations. I’ll never forget talking to a community partner about the phrase, “lack of resources.” As she was offering direct service to the homeless population with limited staff and crumbling infrastructure, her campus partners lamented their own lack of resources – they didn’t have time or money to do things they wanted. She found out that they got paid for their extra-service work, could take classes for free, had office space, could use other event space on campus, had free access to buses, could reach out to experts at any time to ask questions and could take sabbaticals. This resulted in the partner not feeling heard or understood. Of course resource challenges exist everywhere, but direct and sustained communication will strengthen and deepen partnerships, where a lack of communication can really hurt.
I continue to be excited about partnerships. I start every meeting by asking attendees to name something that’s both new and good in their lives. I agree that we need to do what we can, with what we have, where we are. We can do a lot with the great thinking and support of our partners.