University of Nebraska at Omaha officials often invoke the term “community engagement” as they discuss their vision for the UNO of the future.
The campus will break ground later this month on a $24 million Community Engagement Center, to be completed in 2014.
After the 60,000-square-foot facility opens, UNO will play host to a major conference of urban and metropolitan universities focusing on community engagement.
Yet it's not always clear what community engagement means.
The phrase should not be dismissed as the latest buzzword for community service or volunteer work, said Barbara Holland, a Portland State University professor and an international expert in the growing discipline.
Holland said UNO is on the cusp of a significant shift in academic culture, one in which a university's faculty and researchers work hand-in-hand with members of the community to address the problems that community faces.
Supplementing the more traditional approach of conducting and publishing research, community engagement calls for academics to collaborate with nonprofit organizations, local governments, schools and others to discover the best solutions to social problems.
It often involves learning in which students take part in tasks and activities outside the classroom.
A traditional academic researcher might gather statistics about the incidence of Type 2 diabetes in a community, Holland said.
But a community engagement researcher would work with people in the neighborhood to learn about food availability, lifestyle and habits, employment and wages and other factors that might contribute to the incidence of diabetes.
Holland on Wednesday visited UNO to conduct a forum on higher education organization, service learning and community engagement.
It was the latest in a series of visits Holland has made to the Omaha institution in the past five years.
In Holland's view, UNO's emphasis on community engagement can help put it at the forefront as the baby boomer generation ages and Generation X and Generation Y begin to dominate faculty ranks.
“It's a very, very smart and timely strategy,” she said. “Whether they meant to or not they're creating an environment that's going to make them very attractive and very competitive to a new generation of faculty.”
Holland's own career intersects with the development of the community engagement discipline.
She holds a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and spent 17 years working in institutional advancement and media relations for colleges and foundations.
Growing weary of seeing colleges and communities “talk past one another,” she made a midlife return to the classroom, earning a doctorate at the University of Maryland.
That led to stints at the University of Southern Colorado, Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and the University of Sydney in Australia, where she worked from 2007 to 2011.
Holland said she is excited about the facility being built at UNO.
The building will house a public service resource center, a service learning academy, a public service student leadership program and a staging area for community engagement initiatives.
“This is the first place I know of that's actually building a facility explicitly meant to be a shared space for shared work,” she said. “Many other institutions will be watching to see how this goes.”
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