Iowa State University’s Susan Erickson makes magic happen

June 10, 2015
This blog is one in a series over the next few weeks featuring our 2015 Engaged Campus Award winners.
M. Susan Erickson gets to make magic happen. In her role as coordinator of the PLaCE (Partnering Landscape and Community Enhancement) Program at Iowa State University she brings together communities who need development and design services and students who need to learn to provide those services. She also often gets to involve one of ISU’s extension offices in this work in what she calls a “trifecta.”

The PLaCE Program was founded in 2001 and Susan has been the coordinator from the beginning. Her work has included 159 projects and over 1,880 students focused on real-life project-based learning experiences. She connects community design-related projects in smaller towns across Iowa with faculty interested in integrating community service into their courses and research.

Students interview community members in Red Oak in order to plan for regional identity development, with an eye towards regional tourism and economic development.
“My mission is to do the logistical and background work so faculty can focus on scholarship and students,” said Erickson. “I let them do what they do best.”

But Erickson might be downplaying the critical role she plays in forming mutually beneficial, transformational partnerships between communities and Iowa State University. In fact, her interest in strong partnerships led to her graduate thesis research on the PLaCE program’s impact on communities. Her findings revealed that in working on engagement projects with ISU, communities were able to expand community capacity, increase project legitimacy in their communities, and stimulate community dialog and increase creative capacity.  She also found program improvements were needed including careful partner selection, setting clear expectations for partners at the outset of a project, and gathering better project impact data. Susan has published her research findings and used them to improve the PLaCE program. She has also passed this emphasis on partnership on to the faculty and students with whom she’s working.

Students share their design work with Storm Lake residents and business owners.
“She truly has a gift for listening and empathizing with communities and is able to pair them with the faculty members and students that are ready, willing, and excited for the projects,” said Courtney Long, an ISU Design Fellow. “Susan has been a mentor and has assisted in my career development, and has shown the importance of community partnerships and the amazing programs that can be developed.”

Community partners agree on the “magical” element of her work.

“Susan has always been a person we can bring an idea to and then she works her magic to find a professor that allows their class to bring ideas and solutions to a city project,” said Butch Niebuhr, Perry, Iowa City Administrator. “Her hard work and dedication is evident throughout our city.”

Fifteen years in, Erickson hasn’t lost any of the enthusiasm and passion she’s always found in her work and she’s ready for the future. A future that she sees including a new generation of students and faculty who are interested in addressing social justice through their community partnerships.

was the 2015 recipient of the Iowa Campus Compact Engaged Campus Award for Partnership. Awards were presented on May 29. Learn more.