Powering an Engaged University Community

You can see the extra hustle and bustle come autumn when students head back to the city. You can hear the buzz in near-campus restaurants, and frequently, people are outside to rally around sporting events and causes.

These cities and towns boast great art scenes, diversity, recreational opportunities, unique traditions and, in general, there is lots to do.

Oshkosh has the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Ann Arbor the University of Michigan. Cedar Falls has the University of Northern Iowa, Hattiesburg has the University of Southern Mississippi—and the list goes on.

These places—communities with universities—are thriving, cultural, creative hubs that offer knowledge, expertise and, in Oshkosh’s case, bring some 10,000-plus extra people to town each spring and fall semester.


“Just ask yourself the question, ‘what would Oshkosh be like without UW Oshkosh?’” said Sue Panek, executive director of the Oshkosh Area United Way (OAUW) and 2014 UW Oshkosh Chancellor’s Medallion recipient.

“When I first came to town, UW Oshkosh was an island. There were no gates to get onto campus, but it sure felt like it,” said Panek, who has been leading the OAUW for 22 years. “But over the years, and with the help of campus leadership, UW Oshkosh has become so welcoming and the relationship with the city has become much better.”

Partnerships and collaborations, Panek said, are in-part responsible for the campus-community connection—and what helps make Oshkosh a great place to live, work and play.

Assets like the UW Oshkosh Business Success Center, which aims to unite local businesses with University resources, and the UW Oshkosh College of Nursing-run Living Healthy Community Clinic, which provides cost-effective medical care to the uninsured on a sliding scale, are just a couple University-created community resources Panek lists.

There also is the IRS-supported Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program in which UW Oshkosh students and faculty help prepare income taxes for those earning less than $50,000 per year and more visible collaborations like the downtown Best Western Waterfront Hotel renovation and the annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on campus, which Panek said is one of her favorite events in Oshkosh, a city branded by its more than 1,000 events
per year.

UW Oshkosh also rubs off on the community by way of leadership. A former UW Oshkosh faculty member recently served as Oshkosh mayor and is the current Oshkosh Area Community Foundation leader. UW Oshkosh’s own vice chancellor for student affairs recently served as the OAUW board president, and UW Oshkosh graduates lead some of Oshkosh’s most impactful nonprofit organizations. Talented

University leaders—from University staff to faculty members and administrators—and alumni also grace many boards of directors and service groups throughout the region.

“The knowledge professors and the university community expertise bring to nonprofit organizations and businesses is invaluable. If we didn’t have the University, we’d have to pay for that. They sit on our boards of directors and they give us their knowledge for free,” Panek said.


Ed Miller, assistant professor of housing, community economic development and economic geography at UW Oshkosh, said the community also benefits from having students in Oshkosh.

“Students are working out in the community, doing internships, visiting establishments, renting the houses. There is a value added to the city because of those interactions. There is something to be said in terms of enhancing community,” he said.

Civic engagement shapes community

UWO student volunteers for Hands on Oshkosh, an annual event that attracts hundreds of volunteers.

UW Oshkosh’s general education program, the University Studies Program (USP), sends hundreds of students each semester into the greater community.

Launched in 2013, the USP consists of three Quests and is designed to ignite intellectual curiosity and introduce students to opportunities outside of the classroom through general education classes. The USP is designed around signature questions and courses that give students the opportunity to engage in community-rich experiences, which are embedded in the courses. Through each Quest III class, students engage with a community partner for roughly 14 to 20 hours. As part of their course, the students then do an assignment based on their community experience.


“The UW Oshkosh students are learning a great deal from their community experiences. They are interacting with clients and guests throughout the Oshkosh community, being exposed to different people and beliefs along the way. By the end of the semester, they are producing something that is beneficial for either the agency or people they interact with,” said Michael Lueder, civic engagement coordinator for the USP.

In the 2014-2015 academic year, which was the first year students executed their Quest III civic engagement experiences, more than 21,000 hours of community impact were recorded, Lueder said. The community impact was measured over the first two semesters of USP Quest III via 35 courses and included more than 1,300 students.

“We learned a lot at the program level and faculty and instructors in the program learned a lot about how to teach using this method,” Lueder said. “Our students struggled at the beginning. They saw this community engagement component of their class as an extra, as an addition to the course. But by the time they got to the end, it was much better, much more understood. And that’s exactly the point.”

Lueder said they had to work to change the Quest III mindset from “additional” to “part of.”

“No longer are students in a world where you come to class between when the bell rings,” he said. “Now, you get taught to take the next step, ask a lot of questions, and you are empowered to go out and do it right—right in your own community.”

Service learning beyond UWO


“I think a lot of times, there certainly is a disconnect between communities and the university/college students,” said Trevy McDonald ’90.

“But I think the students being civically engaged certainly bridges that gap,” said McDonald, who has, over the years, taught and been part of university communities in North Carolina and Illinois.

McDonald studied radio-TV-film during her days at UW Oshkosh. She was named a 2008 Distinguished Alumni Award winner. The award is the highest given by the UW Oshkosh Alumni Association and recognizes alumni who are accomplished in their professional fields. Now, she is an assistant professor in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill.

McDonald said service learning became an area of emphasis 20 years ago where she teaches. The program at UNC is funded by student fees and is considered a student organization that eventually became a part of the institution’s public service center.

“There were some students who were really frustrated there wasn’t a program that recognized learning outside of the classroom. So, the students passed a referendum to tax themselves and support such a program,” McDonald said.

APPLES Service-Learning is a student-led program at UNC that transforms educational experiences by connecting academic learning and public service. Since 1990, APPLES has strengthened civic engagement by bringing together students, faculty and communities in sustained and mutually beneficial partnerships.

That program just celebrated its 25th anniversary, and while it’s not exactly like UW Oshkosh’s general education program, it is creating measurable change and connection with its community. Through the program, and similar to UW Oshkosh, students focus on a variety of topics in their communities through their engagement experiences— from civil rights and food politics, social justice,
oral history and more.

UWO student-athletes engage with veterans.

“I’ve seen students change by being involved in things like this,” Lueder said of programs and initiatives that get students out and involved in the communities where they live.

Not so ironically, Panek has seen organizations “change by being involved in things like this,” too.

“Interns and student workers keep me young and keep me thinking young, which is good for the organization,” Panek said. “They challenge me to think broader, try new things, and they come with a great attitude, hope, desire and a thirst to learn. It’s an infusion of enthusiasm into the organization, and that benefits so much.”

Humans of Oshkosh focuses on local nonprofits

One particular USP Quest III project stretched beyond the borders of campus—and into the Oshkosh community— to take a close look and tell stories about the serious issue of women and children in poverty in the community.


Humans of Oshkosh is a storytelling blog inspired by the Humans of New York, which was started by Brandon Stanton in 2010. The Humans of Oshkosh blog and highly active Facebook page was launched as part of lecturer Grace Lim’s class Telling Stories for Fun, Profit and World Peace, which is offered to sophomore students from all disciplines.

The second semester of the project—spring 2015—got to the heart of a community connection; women and children in poverty became the focus. Lim’s class partnered with five local nonprofit organizations—Boys & Girls Club of Oshkosh, Oshkosh Area Community Pantry, St. Vincent de Paul Thrift & Furniture Store, Day by Day Warming Shelter and Habitat for Humanity of Oshkosh. The OAUW helped fund the project, which resulted in a 150-page book, a photo story exhibit and multimedia presentation to members of the community and participating agencies.

“My students spoke with the staff and volunteers and the people who they interact with at each of these organizations,” Lim said. “The stories are both heart-breaking and inspirational. They are about the resiliency of the human spirit, how we all share the same desires despite our economic status. We want a roof over our heads. We want clothes on our backs. We want a better life for our children.”

The project allowed UW Oshkosh students to peel back a piece of the community—the poor—and think about making a difference through storytelling.

Humans of Oshkosh exhibit.

“I think the project really changed some attitudes,” Panek said. “People have an image or idea about poverty based on what they see—not what they know.”

Then-sophomore Angela Bennett, who is studying kinesiology, said she learned a lot through the Humans of Oshkosh project—and her interactions with Oshkosh nonprofit agencies.

“You really need to get to know a person and their background before you can go around judging people. Too often I see people being stereotypical toward the poor, but many times people living in
poverty may have a college degree or work three jobs,” Bennett said.

The real-world lessons aren’t always easy, but Lueder said he thinks students are better for having had their eyes opened through interactions with different populations throughout the community.

The UW Oshkosh student-community connection does not end with general education. Beyond Quest III, Panek said she thinks University students have been making a difference in agencies throughout the community for years—one of the joys, she said, of being a part of a city that has a community within a community.

“You can do things that make a really positive impact in a community you live in. And hopefully our students continue to do that whether they stay or leave the Oshkosh community,” Lueder said.

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