Universities cultivate vital outreach

Brian Close

Universities around the country do not live in vacuums; a report urges them to remember the communities they live in and become engaged with them.
One of six reports from the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities, the letter to presidents of 202 universities, stresses the importance of partnerships between schools and their communities.
Released this month, the report recommends going outside the walls of the campus, said Cheryl Fields, director of public affairs for the National Association of State Colleges and Land-Grant Universities.
“The goal is engaged institutions that serve the public needs,” she said. “It’s integrating a lot of things that institutions have always done, but have kept separate.”
A major source of community involvement at the University is the Office for Special Learning Opportunities. The office builds partnerships with organizations, bringing speakers in to talk about the opportunities.
“Every quarter there are a number of faculty who offer courses that combine community involvement with learning,” said Laurel Hirt, acting coordinator for community involvement.
One of the longest-running partners is the Plymouth Youth Center, a north Minneapolis community center with alternative high school and middle school programs.
University graduate Tom Gilseman is a teacher and enrichment coordinator at the center. He compared the special learning office to a matchmaker, saying the emphasis changed several years ago from individuals to groups or members of certain classes.
“Since then, at any time, we will have about a dozen University undergraduates working with us,” he said. They have tutored classes and given presentations, but he said a major benefit also comes from their ability to act as role models for the center’s students.
“You can imagine going to college when you see people your own age going,” he said. “Many of the young people I work with haven’t imagined that before.”
He also said the students gain a new understanding of the University and have a different opinion of college after spending time with the volunteers.
“Students don’t see it as a big, giant monster anymore,” he said.
Fields said that many of the participants in the study leading to this report were pleasantly surprised to see how much outreach was actually happening in their colleges.
And there are other opportunities for engagement in the community, Hirt said, including research projects on local history and surveys of the surrounding neighborhoods, to name a few. She said the departments with the most participation are sociology, philosophy and English.
As the report suggests, there is a growing national emphasis on outreach and “service learning,” Hirt said. And the University is also continuing to develop its partnerships.
She said an advisory committee on service learning was created recently to advise the administration on outreach and community involvement issues. One of the issues that has come up in the past, she said, is research projects that annoy residents by not following through in communication.
“There have been lots of research projects that have been involved in communities, where people come and then leave and never share the information or finish it,” she said, adding that she is “very excited” about the new committee, which she called a “step in the right direction.”
Gilseman said having University students in his classroom helps transfer information from the University directly to his students.
“This is an absolutely extraordinary combination,” he said.