Education Beyond the Classroom
The relationship between a university and its surrounding community often is a tenuous one. The college or university frequently is viewed as an inaccessible institution that is often more concerned about constructing new buildings and expanding the boundaries of its campus until the community cries “enough is enough.” And the longer the institution has been around, the more history, both good and bad, it shares with the community. Well-established communities always have long memories. The question of “who was here first?” is often a common bone of contention.
Increasingly, however, institutions of higher education are becoming more engaged in their communities, with the help of coalitions like Campus Compact and Americorp. And though it may seem like a given that a college or university would want to have a strong presence in its surrounding community, many schools traditionally and currently shy away from community involvement. But the more they try to have an “invisible presence,” the more resentment there is on the part of the community.
As you will read in Phaedra Brotherton’s “Connecting the Classroom and the Community,” various types of colleges and universities, both large and small, public and private, are getting their students off the campus and working with the youngest to the oldest members of the community. For many HBCUs, service learning and community service is often a natural extension of the institution’s mission to “uplift,” and several are obtaining funding by adding a service-learning component to their course offerings.
We didn’t call it service learning, but as part of a course in college I volunteered at a Head Start program. I continued to volunteer even after I completed the course, because it was such a wonderful experience, and it offered a nice change of pace and a break from the books, if just for a few hours a week.
The strain between the campus community and the surrounding neighborhoods is often a two-way street, as a result of many factors — race, ethnicity and economics — to name a few. For example, if wealthy institutions sit in low-income neighborhoods, the college students don’t feel comfortable hanging out in the community, and members of the community don’t feel welcome on or near the campus. Even if both the campus and surrounding community are largely of the same ethnicity, harmonious relations are not guaranteed.
Case in point, tensions often exist between historically Black colleges and universities and their surrounding communities, which are often low-income and predominantly Black. In such cases, race is not the issue but one of class and economics.
I recently attended a conference, which focused on campus-community partnerships. One presenter, who was on the faculty at a large public four-year institution, said officials at her university didn’t think it was necessary to be involved or engaged in the community. She and her colleagues reminded the officials that the university benefits from the community’s tax dollars and they began to reconsider their approach.
I was struck by Dr. Edward Zlotkowski’s (senior faculty fellow, Campus Compact) observation at a February conference in which he said that the university, even if it is public, is viewed as a private benefit not a public good, and unless the university is recast as a publicly engaged venture, “our very future is at stake.”
The educational benefits for students who volunteer their time at a particular agency are immeasurable. Often students end up working in communities that are much different from the communities in which they grew up. One educator at the conference says its common for a number of students to leave their community service projects because they have difficulty relating to the communities in which they were working, as a result they now are trying to educate the students about the communities before their project starts. But however little time a student spends in a particular community, it’s still a learning experience. They leave with a more realistic and well-rounded view of the world. And most beneficial, the student has been exposed to a world other than his or her own.
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