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Higher education was forced to face the uncertainties of the pandemic’s wrath in 2020. For many academics, that meant rethinking their approaches to teaching and learning, as well as how key campus and community partners contribute to those processes. The pandemic also drove the creation of programs geared toward re-emphasizing higher education’s civic engagement efforts.

While the notion of community engagement is not novel, evolving approaches to community engagement are now more necessary than ever as we look toward a post-pandemic higher education. We must reimagine how such college and community partnerships can progress to meet the changing needs of our institutions and the communities in which they are situated.

At the heart of community engagement is the partnership between colleges and universities and the local and surrounding communities where both partners are deeply committed to sharing and disseminating knowledge and resources. Such a partnership thrives when both members are engaged in activities that enrich scholarship, research and creative activity; that foster innovative pedagogy and teaching and learning practice; and that seek to develop educated and engaged citizens. When grounded in those foundational tenets, significant outcomes are realized, including strengthened democratic values and civic responsibility, advancement on critical societal issues, and important contributions to the public good. Such high-impact programs are typically affordable, require low overhead, rely on grassroots efforts and provide immersive community engagement and significant practical value.

At Albion College, the Albion College Community Collaborative (AC3) looks to encourage that evolution in community engagement. AC3 offers high-impact learning opportunities open to all Albion College students and faculty as it seeks to contribute to solving unscripted, real-world problems in service to our local and surrounding communities. Other notable organizations and programs that advance this commitment to public purpose include Campus Compact, a national coalition of higher education institutions committed to public purpose and building democracy, and the Bonner Scholars Program, which can be found at institutions across the country.

Through these and other programs, we’ve learned some lessons as communities and higher education seek to rebuild a post-pandemic education. Those lessons have signaled the need for expanded views about how, and in what ways, community engagement must be re-envisioned in order to meet the needs of a democratic society in the 21st century—a society in which citizens are engaged and active in its co-creation.

Lesson 1: Engage students in the real world instead of requiring it to conform to the academy. Community engagement efforts should operate outside of the traditional confines of the academic calendar. While dedicated work time is necessary to manage students’ schedules, the expectation must be that students and community partners are engaged regularly beyond classroom hours and academic calendars—working collaboratively and side by side in the field.

Lesson 1 in action: Client engagement should mirror what happens in industry, minimizing the starts and stops that occur in conjunction with academic semesters or quarters. For example, engagement with one of our community clients requires students to book and organize local artists, manage and market events including social media, set up and tear down stage equipment, and plan ahead for the next community event. Those events happen on evenings and weekends and during other nonclassroom hours. Post-pandemic models of community engagements in which students work together with community clients need to be fluid, occurring during a client’s hours of operation.

Lesson 2: Reframe student engagement developmentally. Acknowledge that students, faculty and community partners are vital contributors to learning and development. Such a reframing puts the focus on the quality and content of relationships as important drivers of the collaboration’s outcomes. To achieve this goal, students and community clients must direct post-pandemic community engagement efforts, with support from faculty leaders—not the other way around.

Lesson 2 in action: In AC3, for example, students are working closely with the Cutler Center for Student Success to help raise money for the student emergency fund. Their immediate focus has been on creating a surplus policy and practice, and hosting community events in which surplus items are available for sale to campus and community members. All proceeds are contributed to the student emergency fund, and the next step is to build out a more defined business plan that supports the fund over the long haul.

Lesson 3: Build in student leadership pathways modeled after management consulting firms. Such pathways allow students to engage with a community partner on a long-term basis—developing skills in a scaffolded manner and assuming progressively more leadership and management responsibilities. Such pathways also create peer mentoring opportunities.

Lesson 3 in action: AC3 students can enroll in the learning lab experience up to three times for academic credit. The lab designations align with professional titles that parallel the consulting field. Students in the beginning-level class are junior consultants and operate under a “learning by doing” framework that introduces them to the field of management. From there, students in a more advanced class assume the role of senior consultants and are guided by a “learning through doing and mentoring” framework as they shoulder additional supervisory and advising responsibilities for junior consultants on the team while taking the lead on subcomponents of the client work.

Finally, students in the top-level course serve as team leaders contributing via a “learning through leadership” approach. At the team-leader level, students solicit community clients, manage project portfolios and mentor/supervise the junior and senior consultants on their teams.

Lesson 4: Engage community partners and students to collectively address unscripted community-focused problems. Such an approach requires students and community partners to identify relevant challenges and to agree upon a collaborative course of action.

Lesson 4 in action: Albion has many civically engaged community residents and organizations that meet regularly to discuss community needs. To support our work, the meetings are now open to AC3 students and staff so they can learn, listen and contribute ideas as part of the community strategizing effort. Participation in those meetings allows us to foster relationships with community organizations that have the potential to become clients and to identify future partners who can provide support to students and existing clients. Engagement at this strategy level facilitates awareness of who is in the community, what their needs are, the role they can (and do) play, and the complementary connections within and among community organizations.

These lessons should expand and enhance community engagement conceptualizations to a more sophisticated approach that engages key stakeholders and accounts for stakeholder growth and development.

Early in the pandemic, Christen Argoni, editor of Liberal Education, noted the importance of higher education in protecting democracy and preparing engaged citizens. Abraham Unger, director of urban programs and associate professor of government and politics at Wagner College, questioned how such ideals can achieved. His answer: high-impact civic engagement.

Such community partnerships don’t just immediately benefit students and communities; they are vital to longer-term economic growth and redevelopment. Enhanced conceptions of community engagement not only support students’ learning and development but also enable them to engage in consulting and economic redevelopment post-pandemic. Community organizations hold a central role in this approach, as they serve as important contributors to student learning and ensure that we develop the next generation of engaged citizens.

The pandemic significantly impacted colleges and universities, and while tragic, that has given us the opportunity to quickly adapt and refocus on the vital missions of the higher education. We must root that adaptation in capacity building as we seek to address community challenges that have arisen as well as rebuild human connections and strengthen our ability to deal with continuing change.

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