Area colleges unite for community-based learning

Taylor Fussman

Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College, Aquinas College and Michigan Campus Compact are working together to improve community-based learning and empower regional, systemic change in West Michigan.

A new pilot project called the Engaged Department Initiative (EDI) officially began in the summer of 2015 and will conclude in December 2016.

The EDI is funded by a grant from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, which the leadership team from the collaborating institutions used to develop the initiative by gathering best practices from similar projects at universities across the nation.

The GVSU anthropology, hospitality and tourism management, and geography and planning departments are involved with the initiative. Grants were given to each of these departments to support the community-based efforts of the EDI.

Danielle Lake, an assistant professor of Liberal Studies at GVSU, said there is a five person cross-institutional and trans-disciplinary research team studying the initiative. The team includes education specialist Paula Lancaster from GVSU, anthropologist Dillon Carr from GRCC, economist Todd Yarbrough from Aquinas and nonprofit management specialist Heather Carpenter from GVSU. Lake serves as the public philosopher.

This research team will evaluate the success of the EDI through case study research documenting the processes, programs, activities and systems of support engaged throughout each stage of collaboration and by collecting student persistence rates in the participating departments.

“The grants can be used to support department planning, faculty development and activities in the community,” said Ruth Stegeman, director for community engagement at GVSU. “Community-based teaching typically requires more time and resources than traditional classroom-based teaching, and we wanted to support that.”

The anthropology department has been using the grant to build a partnership with the Bethany Refugee and Immigrant Services Program.

“We are hoping to have our students help Bethany better enculturate the various refugee groups, to help them educate their employees and volunteers about the cultures of the refugee populations and to help Bethany better advocate for their refugee clients in the Grand Rapids community,” said Deana Weibel, associate professor and chair of the anthropology department.

Patricia Janes, an associate professor in the hospitality and tourism management department, said they have been using the grant as an opportunity to learn how its engagement activities could enhance educational experiences for students while benefiting the community.

“Although we are only six months into the 18-month cycle, we have made changes in how we operate and engage with all stakeholders,” Janes said. “We are excited about our future planned initiatives, what we will continue to learn and how we will apply this to our department.”

The community-based teaching being built into these department’s curriculum will provide students with more consistency in their learning. Students can also expect an increase in opportunities for research due to the development of deeper and more maintainable relationships with community partners.

The EDI will continue to encourage the incorporation of community-based opportunities into student learning and development throughout the remainder of the initiative.

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