Regional Community Engagement: Creating a personal habit and campus culture of civic and community engagement

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Regional Community Engagement:
Creating a personal habit and campus culture of civic and community engagement

Mr. Adam Ray, Graduate Student, Masters of Higher Education Student Affairs Program

Dr. Lane Perry, Director, Center for Service Learning

Introduction & Rationale

Community engagement has proven to be a time tested tradition for many departments, programs, and organizations on the campus of Western Carolina University (WCU). In many instances, WCU faculty, staff, and students have established mutually beneficial relationships with external stakeholders and helped empower the surrounding communities within the region. This in turn has allowed for academic opportunities that promote transformational learning within students and helped foster the desire for students to become more engaged both in the WCU community as well as their own communities. From a theoretical standpoint, the concept of community engagement as defined by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching refers to:

“The collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in the context of partnership and reciprocity. The purpose of community engagement is the partnership of college and university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research, and creative activity; enhance curriculum, teaching and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address critical societal issues; and contribute to the public good” (Carnegie Community Engagement Classification Description, n.d.).
In order to more effectively align the initiatives of WCU with Carnegie qualifications and promote more effective community based engagement practices, this Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) will emphasize the importance of a concentrated and concerted effort to advance the concept of community engagement on the campus of WCU. As with other initiatives that prove to be evolving in response to higher education practices and demands, the community based engagement practices developed on behalf of the university must also change, adapt, and realign with current trends and regional need. In this, there must be an increased effort at promoting and ensuring student learning within all elements of community engagement. Similarly, it is imperative that engagement practices promote meaningful impact for both the student and community, and that this impact and learning can be measured and monitored through relevant learning outcomes.
It is acknowledged that a QEP should either identify and ameliorate a weakness within an institution, or recognize and accelerate investment in a strength that aligns with the mission, vision, and strategic plan of an institution. As an evident strength at WCU (e.g., Carnegie Community Engagement Classification – 2008 & 2015; seven time recipient of the Presidential Honor Roll for Community Service; Washington Center Higher Education Civic Engagement Award, 2010) community engagement is currently at a rare tipping point. The vision articulated in the WCU Strategic Plan (2012) is as follows: “To be a national model for student learning and engagement that embraces its responsibilities as a regionally engaged university” (p. 3). The rare tipping point associated with community engagement is that with additional resources, a prioritizing and alignment as the specific QEP topic, and a concerted effort from across campus could lead the community engagement portfolio (e.g., approaches, pervasive nature, measuring and monitoring, and impact) to being one recognized nationally as the exemplar model. That is what this QEP white paper hopes to demonstrate.
Focus & Description of the QEP Idea with Underpinning Literature

Across higher education institutions, community engagement has been implemented through many different curricular and co-curricular vehicles. Personal growth (Gallini & Moely, 2003), moral development (Boss, 1994), engagement (Perry, 2011), and a clear enhancement of the academic content (learning) (Markus, Howard, & King, 1993) has been demonstrated and supported as typical outcomes of community engagement through the classroom. The most ubiquitous vehicle at WCU for delivering content and facilitating common experiences is the Liberal Studies curriculum. Community-based experiential learning with community partners has been identified as an effective instructional strategy. Now then, further research has demonstrated that community-based experiences have had greater impact on student learning when organized in increasingly intensive capacities. Meaning that when community-based learning is integrated across a student’s curricular experience (read: not just one-off or inconsistently offered), the students tend to learn more, get more, and be more directly impacted by their service work (e.g., the building block assertion of service-learning, Perry, 2011).

NOTE: After the QEP topic is selected is typically when the practical components of the topic are developed, tested, and evaluated. Considering that a majority of this work is done after the topic has been selected and in conjunction with a robust development committee, this section will seek to demonstrate the general direction we see community engagement going. This will include a QEP Focus Statement, description of the meaningful and justifiable impact on student learning, and three example measurable student learning outcomes, which are intended to align with the overall goals of WCU. Furthermore, all three of these target areas align with current initiatives practiced within institutions of higher education across the nation.
Guiding QEP Focus Statement: WCU will focus on the high-impact practice of student engagement referred to as community engagement and service-learning with the greater intention of enhancing learning, increasing engagement, reframing civic responsibility, and refocusing the role of critical thinking and problem solving as an essential outcome. We believe that an intentional, primacy-based approach to community-engaged learning will provide the context, challenge, and ultimate value that is typically associated with this high-impact practice (Perry, 2011; Kuh, 2008). The ultimate goal would be for every WCU student to have participated in an introductory-level course (within liberal studies curriculum) and an upper-level course (within their major, or as an upper-level perspectives course) that explicitly integrates community-engaged learning into their course experience.
Having a meaningful and justifiable impact on student learning is the initial element included in this QEP proposal due to the fact that the demonstration of learning must be apparent within community engagement initiatives. Kolb (1984), a renowned scholar in the field of education, describes the importance of meaningful learning experiences in stating, “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 38). In order to determine whether or not students are able to understand the significance of their involvement or connect their effort with engagement at the regional, national, or global level, this QEP will also incorporate measurable student learning outcomes (this proposal will offer two outcomes – see the NOTE in previous section).
Within the literature related to service learning and community engagement practices, researchers were able to identify three common outcomes typically associated with student involvement: civic engagement, academic enhancement, and personal growth (Roldan et al., 2004, Clayton et al., 2005; Center for Service-Learning, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, 2009). Similarly, there is also evidence for the effects that these specific outcomes have on student learning. For example, those students who identified as being more civically engaged illustrated a commitment to social activism (Astin et al., 2000) and an improvement in leadership skills (Eyler & Giles, 1999). From an academic perspective, students were able to improve upon their cognitive skills (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005) and grow in principled moral reasoning (Boss, 1994). Finally, in analyzing the advancement of personal growth, students noted an enhancement in interpersonal engagement and development (Gallini & Moely, 2003), as well as a heightened awareness of personal values (Astin et al., 2000). These particular outcomes have been associated with community engagement practices. The assertion for this QEP proposal is focused on the idea that an intentional, primacy-based approach would have a greater impact on students and in turn be a wiser investment of resources dedicated to the outcomes identified previously.


We expect the following changes to occur with the implementation of this QEP: Through their primacy-based community engagement experiences, students will be able to,

  • Build upon their experiences with the intention of increasing their tolerance for ambiguity through interdisciplinary and contextual understanding, critical thinking skills, and research skills all through knowledge acquisition and applied practice.

  • Demonstrate competency in collaborative problem solving, teamwork and group dynamics, project management, and in applying discipline-specific knowledge to real-world, real-value problems, projects, or inquiries.

  • Intentionally reflect upon their experiences with the greater goal of increasing their understanding of self/personal purpose and how that self relates to and is valued by civic and community engagement, participation in the democratic process, and their discipline.

Demonstration of an Approach to Intentional Community Engagement Across the University

A first year student arriving on WCU’s campus would enroll in a USI course (100-level) that intentionally integrates (across all sections) service with the local community and the course work associated with USI. In this environment the service associated with the course would primarily be lower intensity, one-off, and facilitated in conjunction with the Center for Service Learning (CSL).

  • Intentional outcomes by level of experience (Level 1):

    • Clarify and act upon personal purpose

    • Practice and learn firsthand about civic engagement

Continuing their education, students would enroll in the next level of moderately intensive community-based learning (100/200-level), which would primarily focus on collaborative assignments and projects that allow students to identify and address problems within groups and address challenges being faced within the community. This could align with the current seminar model within each college at WCU.

  • Intentional outcomes by level of experience (Level 2):

    • Integrate information from a variety of contexts (in order to frame problems for solving)

    • Apply and test understanding of civic engagement

In the most highly intensive community-based learning courses (300/400-level), students would participate in undergraduate research, public service internships, and capstone courses and projects. Through these practices students are expected to create a project, program, or facilitate research that integrates and applies what they have learned through their course of study.

  • Intentional outcomes by level of experience (Level 3):

    • Identify and solve complex problems

    • Communicate effectively and responsibly what they have learned

    • Reflect and reimagine civic engagement

Institutional Capabilities & Scope

There are resources and partnerships that currently exist across campus that have positioned WCU to make an intensive move into community engagement across the institution. In connection with a building block approach to community engagement the extensive development of measuring and monitoring mechanisms can help identify where the introductory-level and upper-level courses are. Moreover, the institution knows who is teaching these courses. This is key to organizing existing resources and partnerships. This data will serve as the cornerstone for developing best practices, scalable/transferable models, and identifying appropriate pilot sites within programs/departments.

Naturally, if community engagement is adopted as the QEP topic, the development process would involve the broad-based input of students, faculty, administrators, community members, and alumni throughout the planning and implementation stages of the project. They would have the opportunity to provide feedback at town hall meetings and forums, and through anonymous surveys and other data collection mechanisms. Through these mechanisms a clarification of the exact shape of the QEP would begin to develop. There would be an extensive level of inclusion within the QEP Steering Committee and its subcommittees. These constituent groups would also be involved in the management and oversight of the project as invited members of the implementation and advisory bodies. Collective buy-in is critical for the further development of a campus culture that is rooted in and founded on community engagement as a vehicle to learning.

Potential Resources (for this QEP)

Potential Partnerships (for this QEP)

Grants to support this work in conjunction with the QEP budget (this is a fundable idea)

Center for Service Learning

The 55 courses already designated with community-engaged practices

Office of Leadership & Student Involvement

Additional partnerships in the region that could be cultivated with additional resources and investment

Coulter Faculty Commons

The WCU, Project Based Learning Institute team (four professors from four programs who could help shape thinking)

“Engaged” Academic Departments across Campus (86% of our departments offer an upper-level, core course in the major)

Office of First Year Experience

The Honors College

Assessment Mechanisms for the QEP

If community engagement is to become and remain a part of an institution’s culture, then it is imperative that the responsibility for the measuring and monitoring (read: assessment) of those activities is also adopted. The focus should be on using mechanisms that illuminate perspectives from students, faculty, staff, and community partners. Ultimately, the completion of engaged activities without the assessing of them devalues both and plays into the criticism of lacking rigor that has at times been used to describe community engaged pedagogies as an educational practice.



Community Partnerships

Lily Community Engagement Award Assessment Tool

Community-based Activities Survey

Community Partner Impact Survey

*National Survey of Student Engagement & Civic Engagement Module

SLC Course-based Assessment (faculty-centric)

Annual Focus Group Facilitation by the CSL (one community/project annually)

SLC Course-based Assessment (student-centric)

National Assessment of Service & Community Engagement

**Carnegie Community Engagement Reclassification Framework for 2025

**University of North Carolina – General Administration Community and Economic Engagement Metrics

*WCU adopted the Civic Engagement Module for the NSSE as 1 of the 2 additional modules institutions can adopt.

**These are measuring and monitoring mechanisms important to all stakeholders in the community engagement process.

Multiple assessments currently exist across the institution. As the specific nature of the QEP begins to take shape, the Steering Committee will be able to determine more applicable and appropriate mechanisms for measuring the impact of community engagement across a range of constituent groups.

Institutional Process & Lay of the Land

This QEP concept is on fertile soil at WCU and within the UNC system. With the latest adoption and compulsory participation in the UNC-GA Community and Economic Engagement Metrics there is support and demand for these types of activities. This, in conjunction with a clear alignment with WCU’s Vision 2020 document, supports this QEP topic. For more information supporting this QEP from an institutional and system perspective, see the following documents:

  • WCU Carnegie Community Engagement Reclassification Summary Report

  • UNC-GA Community and Economic Engagement Metrics

Conclusion & Charting a Course

This proposal is fundamentally designed to inspire broad participation across classrooms, disciplines, departments, community/regional organizations, and the university as a whole. While WCU has made great strides in the application of community-engaged practices, it is imperative that we remember that we are at a tipping point. The rare tipping point associated with community engagement is that with additional resources, a prioritizing and alignment as the specific QEP topic, and a concerted effort from across campus could lead the community engagement portfolio (e.g., approaches, pervasive nature, measuring and monitoring, and impact) to being one recognized nationally as the exemplar model. Adoption of this idea as the focus of the QEP is the next step in further operationalizing WCU’s Vision 2020. The time is now and this is a once in a decade opportunity. We challenge you to cease this logical next step.


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            students. Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute.

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Center for Service & Learning, Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis

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            CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gallini, S., & Moely, B. (2003). Service-learning and engagement, academic challenge and retention. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. 10(1), 5-14.

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Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experiences as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Markus, B., Howard, J., & King, D. (1993/1999). Integrating community service and classroom instruction enhances learning: Results from an experiment. In C. Sullivan, R. Myers, C. Bradfield, & D. Street (Eds.). Service-Learning: Educating Students for Life, (59-76). Harrisonburg, James Madison University.

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Perry, L. (2011). A Naturalistic Inquiry of service-learning in New Zealand university classrooms: Determining and illuminating the influence on student engagement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Canterbury.

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