Two summers ago, the city of Wilmington experienced a spike in youth gun violence. Within a 90-day period, 108 shots were fired and 19 people were injured, and the city seemed at a loss for how to respond. At the request of the city manager, the University of North Carolina Wilmington stepped in to help.
Over a period of four months, UNC Wilmington faculty and students in disciplines ranging from business to education to health and human services convened a series of community forums to develop a plan that would identify and address the root causes. The 30 resulting recommendations called on government, churches, nonprofit organizations, business leaders and parents to tackle projects related to prevention and intervention, unemployment, education and law enforcement.
For its part, UNCW has begun building a resource database to collect and share data on the region, said Jenni Harris, who serves as assistant to the chancellor for community partnerships at UNCW. Faculty and students will also help by coaching and mentoring members of a youth basketball league in partnership with the Police Athletic League.
“The university is more than just adding to the tax base — we are actually playing a role in helping solve some of our community’s social and economic issues,” Harris said. “This is a massive issue, and UNCW is not going to solve it, but what it can do is contribute toward finding solutions.”
UNCW is among 11 institutions in the University of North Carolina system — and 240 institutions across the country — that received in January the 2015 Community Engagement Classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
UNCW students reach the community through reading campaigns.
Across North Carolina, Appalachian State University, East Carolina University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, University of North Carolina at Greensboro University of North Carolina at Pembroke, University of North Carolina Wilmington and Western Carolina University received the classification.
While most all the UNC designees had earned the classification once before, this year was North Carolina A&T’s first time.
Together with Elizabeth City State University, which received the designation in 2010, the UNC system ties the California State system for the most universities to receive Carnegie recognition for their engagement.
“This is the official recognition of unofficial work we’ve been doing for some time now,” said Leslie Boney, UNC vice president for international, community, and economic engagement. “It’s in many ways a national validation that we’ve been doing something special.”
While the Carnegie Foundation’s other classifications rely on national data, Community Engagement is an elective that institutions apply for voluntarily. In reviewing applications, Carnegie evaluates how well campuses collaborate with outside constituencies and community representatives to benefit students and faculty and address big issues of concern outside the university.
“These are campuses that are improving teaching and learning, producing research that makes a difference in communities and revitalizing their civic and academic missions,” said John Saltmarsh, director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education and an administrative partner for the foundation’s engagement classification, in a statement.
UNCW’s Harris, who chairs the system-wide UNC Engagement Council, which she and Leslie Boney created in 2014 to facilitate engagement across the UNC system, is impressed with the number of UNC institutions to earn the classification.
“This system is not only contributing to the academic success of the students, but we’re also contributing to workforce development and the social and economic development of the state,” Harris said. “Having so many recognitions by a national foundation across a state is huge.”
While serving the state has always been a part of the University’s mission, the system’s current five-year strategic plan “Our Time, Our Future,” sets “serving the people of North Carolina” among its five main goals, next to objectives like strengthening academic quality and maximizing efficiencies.
With 220,000 idealistic and energetic students, 50,000 thoughtful and engaged faculty and staff and physical assets like research facilities and meeting rooms, the University can offer its communities a lot, Boney said.
In addition to serving the public, though, community engagement enhances many other aspects of the University’s work, Boney said.
“If you do it right, community engagement fulfills all three parts of our mission: teaching, research and public service,” he said. “Engagement makes all those things better. Students learn more in a setting where they’re applying the things they’ve learned. Research done in the community is easier to sustain over time. And as traditional government in a lot of areas is declining in its ability to take on certain tasks, having students and faculty and staff involved in solving problems becomes an even more vital public service.”
Tobi Polland, a senior at UNCW and president of the Student Government Association, served as a volunteer coordinator for the school’s Office of Student Leadership and Engagement her first three years.
She has helped recruit volunteers — and volunteered herself — for outreach projects including a reading campaign at the nearby College Park Elementary School, the Feast Down East program to address the issue of food deserts and various Boys and Girls Club events. She is currently coordinating a zero-waste “TEALgate” (named for the school color) for the April 22/Earth Day baseball game against UNC-Chapel Hill.
After learning about the issues her community was facing in an international studies course her freshman year, Polland resolved to resist getting stuck in the bubble of her college campus.
The Cooperative Extension Program at A&T established community gardens with a five-year grant from Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR)
“It’s really important to see it’s a great big world, and there are people who didn’t have the same opportunities you did,” Polland said. “You have a responsibility to get involved and leave the community better than you found it.”
Community engagement, Polland believes, goes 100 percent hand-in-hand with education. “The degree is a requirement,” she said, “but what happens is if you’re not knowledgeable about what’s going in the world — locally, statewide, regionally, nationally — you’re disconnected, and you don’t have a way of applying what you know.”
Boots on the Ground
The approach to community engagement varies widely across the UNC system and, depending on the campus, may involve teaching, research or public service.
For years, UNC-Chapel Hill has run economic development programs in Lenoir and Caswell counties. Western Carolina just finished a project assisting the town of Dillsboro as it recovered from a series of devastating economic shocks, including the relocation of its tourist attraction the Smoky Mountain Railroad. And UNC Greensboro has licensed a cloud-based software application called the “Community Engagement Collaboratory” that tracks partnership and public service activities between universities and communities.
“Beyond reporting, we use the Collaboratory to help us understand who is doing what, where, when, with whom and to what ends,” said Emily Janke, who directs UNCG’s Institute for Community and Economic Engagement. “This helps increase information sharing, convening and collaboration across the university and community.”
The state’s land-grant institutions, NC State and NC A&T, have long focused on educating and serving their communities.
“As a land-grant institution founded in 1890, promoting sustainable agricultural production and quality of life for individuals, families and communities has been part of our strategic direction for 125 years,” said Bill Patterson, interim director of communications and marketing for the A&T School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. “The Carnegie award is validation of A&T’s commitment to the concept of engagement and outreach.”
To increase access to healthy and affordable food for people living in low-income “food deserts,” The Cooperative Extension Program at A&T established community gardens in Bertie, Durham and Scotland counties with a five-year grant from Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR), a USDA community-based program for at-risk children and their families.
Fifty-three families, including more than 100 adults and 200 youth, contributed regularly to the day-to-day garden work. The garden staff and volunteers also offered numerous events and workshops to teach community members how to preserve food, compost, trellis tomatoes, start seeds, control insects and cook certain dishes.
“One of the things we tried to do from the beginning is not to bring the gardens to people, but to have them be a part of the creation process,” said Lisa Valdivia, the A&T extension associate who oversaw the CYFAR project. “We want to encourage them to create their own spaces, where they’re going to be the ones in charge. It takes a lot of time for people to develop to the state where they understand the principles, but it means the garden is stronger in the end.”
Harris of UNCW and the UNC Engagement Council said she is constantly impressed by the energy and dedication UNC faculty and students devote to the type of outreach work that earned 11 institutions the Carnegie classification.
“It gets my heart racing that we have so many people out there who are passionate,” she said.
Homepage photo caption: The Cooperative Extension Program at A&T established community gardens in Bertie, Durham and Scotland counties with a five-year grant from Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR), a USDA community-based program for at-risk children and their families.
Story written by Christina Cooke