By Carrie Henderson
Want to get students more excited about their studies? Help them see how what they are learning connects with the community around them.
Want to get your community more aware of how the university can contribute? Send students out to help the community solve challenging problems.
That’s the win-win solution Western Carolina has arrived at as part of an effort to improve the educational experience of undergraduate students. WCU’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) was jointly designed as part of a two year collaboration by faculty, staff, students, Board of Trustees and community members to help students create connections between what they learn inside and outside of the classroom and to afford faculty, staff, and students more opportunities to collaborate.
Dr. Carol Burton, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Undergraduate Studies, explains: “We saw a need for students to be more intentional about their undergraduate experiences. Engaging with the community was a way to help them to make connections and learn in a more meaningful way. We encourage our students to be involved in mutually beneficial projects where they can learn from the community while giving back.”
The pilot program for the QEP is in its third year, with each academic department creating its own QEP. Specific examples of QEP-related opportunities that are increasing at WCU include:
· Undergraduate research: faculty members mentor undergraduate students in research, particularly in community-based research
· Service learning: Service Learning Components are formally incorporated into academic classes
· International travel: Students develop relationships with local communities and participate in service learning opportunities while traveling abroad for academic and non-academic purposes
· Career services: Students are eager and intentional about participating in internships, practicum and other experiences that serve the sponsoring organization and foster development of workplace skills
So far, the response has been extremely positive. One group of students enrolled in a psychology course was assigned to work with a nursing home through a service-learning component. The goal was for students to learn how to apply the principles of behavior modification. At the end of the course, student evaluations were extremely positive about the increased opportunities for applying their learning as well as the sense of civic-engagement they experienced. The service-learning component gave the students a true understanding of behavior modification while allowing them to be engaged with the community.
Members of the community also see the benefits of the QEP. Emma Wertenberger, the Coordinator of The Appalachian Women's Museum, has worked with WCU students on a farmstead restoration project in Dillsboro, NC. WCU students from the Construction Management program, the History department, the Center for Service Learning and the Women’s Center are among regular volunteers at the farmstead. Wertenberger believes the work of the students, which includes cataloguing, artifact-restoration, and research, is an invaluable resource to the community: “Students are cooperative and very willing to get hands-on experience in restoration. I hope this program will be ongoing because it is truly a blessing for small towns in North Carolina.”
The long-term goal is that every academic department has a way to formally place undergraduates in the community for extended service-learning opportunities that allows them to perform meaningful work. The QEP aligns with several goals of UNC Tomorrow including preparing engaged learners to make a difference in their world.
Dr. Burton has high hopes for the next five years of the QEP: “Ideally, we would like students to know our mission before they enroll at WCU, to be excited about making a contribution to their community, and to help advance our mission as stewards of place. With each academic department determining its own engaged learning experience, WCU has the potential to make a tremendous difference in the community, as well as in the lives of our students, faculty, and staff.”
For further information, please contact:
Dr. Carol Burton
Assistant Vice Chancellor of Undergraduate Studies
Western Carolina University