March Membership Spotlight: Lewis University

The Office of Community Engaged Learning lives on the third floor of the Learning Resource Center, a large brick building seeming to be one of the main attractions of Lewis University as told by the constant bustle of students and faculty there. This is where I found Laura Wilmarth Tyna and Dr. Christie Billups. Laura is the Director of Community Engaged Learning and Christie is the Curriculum Development Advisor of the office and its founding director as well as Assistant Professor of Theology.

The Office of Community Engaged Learning, formerly known as the Office of Service Learning, is where faculty, staff, and community partners come together to create community engaged learning experiences. The recent change in the office name highlights a key characteristic in the endeavors of Christie, Laura, and the office in general. They are constantly looking for ways to continually develop.

In recent years, Lewis has twenty to thirty designated community engagement courses each semester. These are courses in which faculty and community partners co-determine structured opportunities for students so that they not only meet academic learning outcomes but also contribute to goals in the community. The classes succeed by integrating community engagement with course materials, and by enabling students to practice social and civic responsibility while deepening their disciplinary knowledge.

For example, one of Lewis’s marketing courses does this successfully by pairing students with nonprofit community partners. The students develop a marketing strategy for their community partner that aligns with the community’s needs. Students in this course not only gain real world experience outside of the classroom, but they also become invested in their community. Laura spoke to a student from this class who said that by being immersed in this course, they forgot they were working for a grade, but ultimately wanted to do the best work they could for their community partner.

Another example of a particularly successful community engaged learning course was when a professor in the College of Education had students work with the Aurora Regional Fire Museum. The museum wanted to create an educational tour for elementary aged students. The Lewis students developed an engaging and exciting curriculum for this tour. They were able to use their skills and knowledge to help an important institution in the community.

These courses develop in several different ways. Many times Laura and Christie see things that are happening within the community and then they work with their partners to develop ideas about how this could take shape in a classroom. They then reach out to faculty to plant the seed of a community engaged course.

Other times, the faculty member is really jazzed about community engaged learning and it plays a core role in their pedagogy already. In this case the CEL office can offer the faculty member connections or resources that they might need to develop and eventually designate their course.

One of the common themes throughout the interview with Laura and Christie was the importance of an open relationship with the office’s community partners. When we talked about successful partnerships, the first thing that was mentioned was the ability to keep improving the courses and community experiences. By having open communication between the office, faculty, and community partners, they have been able to address varied issues and resolve them.

As Christie said, they are working with human beings, so there are bound to be challenges and it can’t be perfect. But they’ve found success in letting their partner organizations know that the office welcomes their input and wants to receive their honest feedback.

The importance of open communication was also highlighted when I asked what tips the women could offer universities that are looking to develop community engaged learning. When the office first began, a key to the success was building relationships with faculty, deans, as well as community partners. It was important to connect with people and to educate the campus and surrounding community about the office.

Christie and Laura did some key networking by implementing a Service Learning Advisory Team. This board is made up of faculty and staff who are passionate about community engagement. The board supports the office by helping them know what each college needs, dialoguing about innovations that will strengthen the office and community engaged learning courses, and guiding efforts to make the office exemplary.

The office not only uses open communication with their partners to constantly make improvements, but they have also recently put into place a student leadership program. The Community Engaged Learning Facilitator Program allows a student leader to participate in a designated service learning course and gives a voice to the students. Through these student leaders, faculty and partners can learn more about the experiences of students in the courses.

This spring is the second semester that this program will be active but Laura and Christie are already in awe of the effects it has had on their student leaders. They described two of the first students in the program and the confidence they gained in such a small amount of time. By telling these students that their opinion was valuable and needed, it opened them up and helped them find their voice. These student leaders became immersed in the community engaged classes and took responsibility for them; they wanted to make them successful for both community partners and their peers.

Facilitators are not the only students to gain something from designated courses. Christie and Laura give surveys at the beginning and end of each course so that they can see what can be improved and what is working. One thing they have learned is that through these courses, students are more likely to believe that they can be an agent of change. This is no small victory and stays with the students beyond their college careers. Students also experience professional relationships outside of an academic setting. They learn how to communicate and work with community partners, a task that can be very intimidating for college students.

Through all the success Lewis’s Office of Community Engaged Learning has had, Laura Wilmarth Tyna and Christie Billups are still looking for ways to improve and keep developing their office. Christie said that the Carnegie Foundation Classification of Community Engagement for Lewis University would be an exciting feather in their cap. They would also love to see Lewis invest more resources to make the director of their office full time. It is no surprise though, that these two passionate professionals and the office made their home at Lewis University.

The university’s mission statement highlights the institution’s dedication to success accomplished through collaboration, mutual respect, collegiality, and service as well as their dedication to justice. These aspects go hand in hand with the goals of the Office of Community Engaged Learning.