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Universities in partnership with community: what’s our role?

Posted by Ryanne Filbey Jan 1, 2011 ,

This past fall, some of my colleagues and I led an all staff meeting discussing the amazing amount of college women engaged in community service and their potential motivations for doing so.  The meeting  focused on Service Learning programs in some of our partner universities and how Strong Women, Strong Girls can take advantage of students interested in doing community service.  The eventual (and overarching) question became, “is being involved in Strong Women, Strong Girls being an activist in your community or is it community service?”

I found the whole discussion to be very interesting (hoorah colleagues!), but it led to my thinking about our role within The University and where the institutions’ goals lie.  I did some poking around and found a very intriguing webinar on this very issue from PEAR (Program in Education, Afterschool & Resiliency).  It was  an archived webinar from February of 2010.  I encourage you to check it out, but in the interest of keeping you reading MY blog, I’ll summarize and draw some interesting conclusions.

  • Universities serving in the community used to be a “fringe-y” and radical idea.  In 1991, only 16 percent of college students were involved in the community and only 15 percent of universities had departments or support centers for community service.  NOW, about one-third of all college students are involved nationally and about 80 percent of colleges have departments to support community involvement.
  • Previously (up until two decades ago) universities were entering the community to do ‘research’.  Hardly a reciprocal relationship. Ira Harkavy, Associate Vice President and Matt Hartley Associate Professor in Education at University of Pennsylvania suggest that relationships between universities and the community are burgeoning and moving forward should be democratic partnerships.  Principles of democratic partnerships include:
  1. Purpose: a civic and democratic emphasis
  2. Process: democratic, egalitarian, transparent, and collegial process.
  3. Product: strives to make a difference for all partners.

This is a total shift in the way we have been thinking about university-community partnerships in the past – “The relationship is the most important part – the relationship is the ends NOT means to a research project.”

So, why does this matter?  Don’t universities have enough resources (students, funding, drive) to be in the community on their own?  Well, you might think so- but I’m suggesting that it is linkages like Strong Women, Strong Girls that make this democratic partnership not only possible, but successful.  You have 12 full time staff dedicating their expertise to training college students, recruiting girls to the program, writing curriculum, finding places in schools and sites where mentors are most needed, etc.  SWSG is already making these connections (democratic partnerships) between universities and communities – fulfilling goals on both sides. SWSG leverages our relationships with universities and use their resources (students) to allow them to be change agents in the community.

Now, I don’t think this is a totally revolutionary idea (I’ve just spent a lot of time thinking about it) – I’m only suggesting that outside programming for schools is needed, particularly because schools in urban centers are drastically underserved compared to their suburban counterparts.  Furthermore, programs like Strong Women, Strong Girls (or Jumpstart or Peer Health Exchange, etc.) are uniquely positioned to offer specific and necessary services with university resources.

$30 gives college mentors the tools needed to be role models.