College students who are given an opportunity to engage with their communities are more likely to volunteer, serve on nonprofit boards and have improved intercultural understanding when they graduate.
That’s the idea behind a June 7 conference at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s Culver Family Welcome Center. It’s about providing networking and learning opportunities for Wisconsin faculty and staff who create programs for students in volunteerism, community based learning and civic engagement.
“In general, community engagement leads students to have increased empathy, problem-solving skills and sense of social responsibility,” said Jennifer Considine, UW Oshkosh communication studies department chair, faculty fellow with the Center for Community Engagement and an organizer of the conference. “Community engagement can also reduce stereotypes and increase students’ intercultural understanding. Students who participate in community based learning tend to be more involved in their communities after graduation as well.”
About 10 UWO faculty, along with Chancellor Andrew Leavitt and Provost John Koker, will be part of the conference, as well as UW System Regent Hector Colon. Keynote speaker will be Howard Rosing, executive director of the Stearns Center at DePaul University.
“My hope is to see instructors and staff connecting from across the state to share ideas and best practices for community engagement,” Considine said. “I expect to be inspired to take on new projects and engage with students and community partners in new ways.”
She said community engaged projects support food pantries, homeless shelters, environmental organizations, public schools and many other groups throughout the state.
Considine said community engaged learning is a key strategy for fulfilling the Wisconsin Idea—the philosophy that university research and teaching should be applied to solve problems and improve the health and quality of life for all citizens of Wisconsin.
Students throughout Wisconsin contribute thousands of hours to learn about community needs and engage with community partners on important projects. She said UWO alone creates roughly 250,000 hours of community impact through civic and community engagement initiatives.
Community connections key
Mike Lueder, interim director of the Center for Community Engagement on the Oshkosh campus, said many college students do not get a full picture of the community they live in and community-based learning activities provides that exposure and helps them become connected.
“Our survey data shows that overwhelmingly the students learn about the community they live in better, the problems people face and how to create solutions to those problems—all through community work,” he said.
He recalled a kinesiology major who took a political science Quest III course called The Politics of Food. The class partnered with the Oshkosh Area Food Pantry and when a job opened up she applied and was hired.
Lueder said the class prompted her to switch her major to political science and gave her the determination to find a job working at a food pantry like the one she volunteered at. It just happened she got a job at the one she volunteered with.
Lueder said his goals for the UWO conference are twofold: It fills a void from a former similar conference that stopped during the pandemic and he hopes it will re-inspire and re-energize people to continue to do great work.
“Our communities and our colleges and universities need faculty and professionals to lead this work—and this work can be exhausting,” he said. “I really want everyone who attends to walk away feeling ready to jump back into it.”