We CU helps Illinois instructors offer meaningful learning experiences

5/3/2023 5:55:08 AM Amy Clay-Moore

The We CU Community Engaged Scholars (We CU) program provides a framework to strengthen student community engagement and meet the needs of our community. Since 2020, the We CU program team has focused on developing resources to help students make a greater impact in our community, including project matching, mini grants to offset any costs related to their service, and training opportunities to help students gain a better understanding of the community. 

We CU works with course instructors to offer project matching through the Community Learning Lab. As these collaborations have evolved over the last few years, program directors Emily Stone and Katie Shumway are discovering ways to support instructors interested in adding service learning projects to their syllabi. 

In addition to providing resources and tools for project matching, We CU offers guidance and support for other aspects of integrating service learning into a course. For instance, the team works with instructors to set clear goals for students’ service experiences, so the projects enhance  the overall course experience. The We CU team has also offered consultations on assessment tools and strategies for integrating service into existing courses. 

Sara PearsonSara Pearson, MPH DVM, teaches Community Health (CHLH) 410: Public Health Practice, a course that offers both undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to practice the skills utilized in a public health practice career. She has been working with We CU to implement service learning into the course through “community engaged learning projects.”  

“The community engaged learning project gives the students a real-life opportunity to connect with members of the community, address a health-related issue, create a comprehensive intervention plan, and present their recommendations to the community partner," noted Pearson. “This allows them to work through a complex problem and defend a reasonable solution and practice their professional communication and presentation skills.”

Dr. Pearson has appreciated having We CU as a resource. “The We CU team has been incredibly helpful with all my questions, including how to implement these projects into my courses. They have really helpful advice, even down to tips and tricks to encourage students to sign up for projects. Their advice is practical and applicable.”

Pearson has seen great results since offering service projects to her CHLH 410 students. “This is an excellent way to harness their passion into a project where they can see a real impact on the community. I have received excellent feedback about the benefits of this project within the course. I overheard one of my students tell their classmate in another course ‘when you take CHLH 410, ‘you actually get to work with real people in the community and actually make a difference! It is a valuable and unique learning experience,’" Dr. Pearson said.

For instructors interested in incorporating community engagement and service into their coursework, Dr. Pearson offers the following insight: “It can be daunting at first and feel chaotic at times. You have to be open-minded that the plan you started with will most likely change over the semester. I ask students at the beginning of the semester to be flexible. I think this is a good learning experience for students as well, since work outside of the classroom does not always go as planned. The We CU team has been supportive every step of the way and helped me organize these projects in a way that is less daunting. The satisfaction and skills that the students gain from these projects are well worth the time and effort.”

The We CU team has also recognized the need for training and resources to support faculty and staff who are already offering community engagement experiences to their students. “In our conversations with instructors, we’ve learned that some instructors feel isolated in this work. Many would like more support and the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other instructors,” said We CU Co-Director Emily Stone. 

In April 2023, We CU partnered with the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute (IHSI) and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (OVCDEI) to offer its first-ever instructor-oriented training. Challenging Racism in Service Learning: Integrating an Anti-Racist Approach invited instructors to consider how classroom service learning practices can subtly (and not-so-subtly) promote racism and discuss ways to minimize racism in volunteer and service work.

As part of the workshop, Prof. Ann Abbott shared some of the experience she has gained from nearly 20 years of offering service learning instruction. Yuting Chen, an engineering professor who offers service learning opportunities in Engineering 598: Teaching and Leadership, really appreciated Prof. Abbot’s contribution. “I think the most helpful part of the training is where Dr. Ann Abbott shared her own experience in teaching a service-learning course and how she handled some of the issues/challenges that arose. I hope future sessions will feature more faculty/instructional staff who had implemented service-learning in their courses and the lessons learned,” said Prof. Chen. 

Jan Brooks, a human development and family studies instructor who leads a course that prepares students for engaging in service during their study abroad experience in Cape Town, South Africa, appreciated the opportunities for discussion. “It was wonderful to interact with others in the meeting, gather additional ideas for building anti-racist curriculum, and both hear and share examples of putting our commitment into action,” she shared.

The broad interest and participation in the Challenging Racism Workshop is encouraging to the We CU Team. We CU is working with partners on future training opportunities for instructors and staff, including a workshop on community-engaged research and anti-racism. In addition to consultations, the We CU team is developing training and reflection resources that instructors can use to enhance their students’ community engagement work. 

We CU is committed to supporting instructors and staff. “Community-engaged teaching is complex work because you must balance the needs of community partners, students, and instructors. We see value in supporting instructors in finding this balance and working toward reciprocity and partnership,” Stone said. 

Did you miss the Challenging Racism in Service Learning workshop? Read an event summary and check out the slides and recording

The We CU Team looks forward to working with instructors and staff across campus on ways to build a culture of service and engagement at the University of Illinois. If you are interested in working with We CU, please visit https://wecu.illinois.edu/community-projects to learn more and complete an application.