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Community Engaged Learning in the Inland Empire

At UC Riverside, we’ve always had many of our students engaged in service-learning and other volunteer opportunities in the community. But although we have developed robust community partnerships, it has been more challenging to track student engagement, match students with community needs, and embed service-learning into academic coursework. We wanted to do a better job leveraging our community assets in support of student learning and success.

The Collaborative Opportunity Grant (COG) from Collaborating for Change presented an opportunity to strengthen these connections and develop an integrated system to bridge service-learning and academic engagement. Our new model will provide the infrastructure to match students with opportunities in the community, log student hours and reflections on their learning, and assist faculty with embedding service-learning into academic coursework. The goal is to streamline the entire process for faculty, students, and community partners, while helping our campus monitor and support what’s going on in the community.

We started by hiring student coordinators, developing the online infrastructure, and piloting academic internships integrated with student coursework. The online module (which rolls out this spring) will be critical for ongoing success. It will allow students to set learning objectives, track their hours, create journal entries, and share assignments with others, while faculty will be able to monitor learning objectives and evaluate students’ progress.  The process is very student-centered, in many cases allowing students to decide how they want their experience to apply to the course.

The project has increased collaboration across the university, bringing in the Offices of Undergraduate Education, Student Life, Educational and Community Outreach Programs, and Auxiliary Services. In addition, we have strengthened our partnerships with the Riverside Unified School District and the local Community Foundation, which works with nonprofits in Riverside and San Bernardino (the Inland Empire). These partnerships will help us develop new opportunities for students going forward.

The new approach has also helped address some of the barriers to service-learning that our students faced in the past. Over half of UC Riverside students are first-generation, 60 percent are Pell recipients, and up to 80 percent could be classified as low-income students. For these students, the money required to complete a background check for an internship can be a barrier to participation. We’ve set aside some funding to provide free background checks for students who need them, as well as providing opportunities for them to complete this requirement on campus, which will increase student access to these valuable experiences.

We’re already seeing projects emerge from our service-learning programs that successfully join service with academics. For example, some of our students are using Community-Based Participatory Research to engage with local farms and the Riverside Food Co-Op around sustainable agriculture. Students are not only helping their community – they’re also learning a new research methodology that they can apply in their careers or in graduate school. Students also receive support from faculty mentors who can help them prepare to publish or present the results of their work.

Our biggest challenge was getting faculty and department buy-in. However, we’ve addressed that challenge through greater communication and messaging around the educational value of our new approach. Having outcomes data in hand – plus an easy-to-use online system – makes it easier for us to argue that mentoring students in community engaged learning projects should be part of a faculty member’s workload.

The COG grant equips us to strengthen our pipeline of students moving toward deeper integration of community service with their course work.  These students illustrate a few different parts of the pipeline – from service through a student organization like Jacky, to a service-learning mentorship experience through a course like Cody, to a long-term community service and research project that led to a fellowship opportunity like Chriss.

We’re excited to take advantage of the COG grant to build upon our existing community engaged learning efforts at UC Riverside. The impact that these programs have had on our students is invaluable. Increasing our capacity to collaborate will help us make more connections and scale the project in a truly meaningful way.

Elizabeth Claassen Thrush is the Educational Initiatives Coordinator in the Office of Undergraduate Education at UC Riverside, where in addition to community service learning and research, she also coordinates a program for undergraduate students to create and lead their own original courses.  She is working on her PhD in Education – focusing on school-community partnerships.


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