Colleges and universities have long touted their positive impact on the world through research, the education of students, and solutions to many of our greatest challenges. At the same time, they are sometimes criticized for distant “town-gown” relationships. To address this challenge and improve learning outcomes and research, Iowa’s college and universities are investing new efforts to impact communities and neighborhoods closer to home.
Dubbed “The Neighborhood University” model in one national publication and sometimes also referred to as “anchor institutions” or “place-based engagement,” these efforts include everything from focusing student volunteer efforts in specific areas to research partnerships to land development and more.
Commitment to Neighborhood
One recent example is Grand View University’s Views Forward Project, which aims to recognize “the impact the University has had on the neighborhood and aims to bring continued positive change through genuine and sustainable projects, programs and events that involve residents and businesses.” This includes free tickets to local residents for on-campus events, the development of deeper partnerships through service-learning courses, and other initiatives.
Other campuses are also focusing on their local neighborhoods and communities as they create a Civic Action Plan for their community engagement efforts including Buena Vista University, Central College, Simpson College, Wartburg College, Clarke University, and other plans in development now. These plans were called for in the Civic Action Statement, signed last year by 21 presidents in Iowa, which, among other things, calls for embracing “our responsibilities as place based institutions, contributing to the health and strength of our communities—economically, socially, environmentally, educationally, and politically.”
In addition to their community or neighborhood focus, what these programs and initiatives have in common is their emphasis on reciprocal partnerships that impact student learning and skill development while benefiting communities. They also emphasize community leadership so the projects and programs result in lasting, sustainable change that is driven by community needs and goals.
Commitment to Rural Communities
Some examples are not tied to geographically adjacent places, but other, perhaps more under-served locations, including small towns in rural Iowa. The University of Iowa has partnered with communities across the state through the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities. This program facilitates faculty and staff in completing real-world projects related to sustainability.
Iowa State University has also built statewide, small-town partnerships, both through traditional Extension and Outreach offices, but also programs like the College of Design’s PLaCE Program. For 15 years, this program has facilitated more than 2,000 students providing design services through 180 projects in communities across the state. The goal is partnering with communities and nonprofit organizations to provide development concepts and promote learning experiences for students.
Similarly, Drake University’s School of Journalism Public Relations Program has taught courses in which students provide public relations services to small towns looking to revitalize their downtown. This multi-year, interdisciplinary project leverages student learning opportunities in graphic design, business, public relations, and more to help rural Iowa communities build capacity and expand their reach. Most recently, students work with residents and leaders in Manning and Perry and were recognized with national awards for their impact.
As these efforts continue to grow, Iowa Campus Compact is supporting them through national service member staffing support, planning assistance, faculty and staff development, and other training, including a workshop planned for next May with leading national researcher on these efforts, Kent Koth, Iowa native and Executive Director of the Center for Community Engagement at Seattle University.