Civics 101

 

Civics 101

New civic engagement strategy leverages the University's influence to benefit the community

By Mike Rigert
UVU Magazine, Spring 2012 

Melanie Frost flashes a smile as she reflects on how a part-time job she landed not only leaves her feeling like she’s contributing to the betterment of society, but also how it may influence what type of business the aspiring, 23 year–old entrepreneur will one day start.

The senior Spanish major at Utah Valley University never imagined that her pursuit of a higher education combining three of her passions — business, speaking Spanish and people — would lead to the South Franklin Community Center in Provo, Utah, becoming her second home. A mentor tutor in UVU’s School Community University Partnership (SCUP) program coordinated with United Way of Utah County, Frost is one of a dozen UVU students who spend considerable time at the center, and nearby Franklin Elementary, helping area K-12 students bone up on their literacy and math skills.

“One thing I’ve learned at this job is that I really like seeing improvement in families, communities and children,” she says. “If the children are struggling, then the whole society will struggle in the future. Helping them improve academically is something worth fighting for.”

At its essence, that’s the focus of UVU’s new civic engagement strategy — ratcheting up the University’s involvement with local community organizations in order to identify challenges, needs and opportunities where the institution can help. Beginning last fall, UVU President Matthew S. Holland and members of his cabinet began meeting with each community’s leaders to establish clear lines of communication and pinpoint avenues for productive collaboration. Ad hoc councils of university and community leaders also have been formed for improved cooperation, and students — a key component to the initiative’s success — are finding ever-greater opportunities to apply their learning outside the classroom.

Frost, bilingual by way of her church service in southern California, and mentor tutors likewise fluent in Spanish, are critical to the success of the tutoring program. That’s due to the high concentration of Spanish-speaking school children in the neighborhood who require extra help getting up to speed academically because of the disconnect between learning English at school and speaking Spanish with their non-English speaking parents at home. To assist entire families, the SCUP program’s mentor tutors hold parent literacy workshops to teach the kids’ parents English.

The program’s success dovetails with Utah leaders’ goals to raise public education standards in language arts and math and, ultimately, to increase the college-readiness of residents. The state’s Prosperity 2020 campaign is aimed at increasing the proportion of Utahns holding post-secondary degrees and certifications from 39 to 66 percent.

To that end, UVU’s civic engagement-oriented efforts like SCUP’s South Franklin Community Center Mentor Tutor program may present an effective and sustainable grass-roots model for boosting children’s college preparedness. By teaching Provo children to enjoy devouring a “Dragon Slayers’ Academy” book or calculating how many cups there are in a gallon of chocolate milk, UVU students are making a difference, one child at a time.

Community-Minded Campus

Of course, reaching out to the local community is nothing new at UVU. Since its founding in 1941, the institution has been in tune with the post-secondary educational needs of the surrounding communities and the general needs of the Utah Valley populace.

This commitment to community has continued in this century. A year after obtaining university status, UVU was recognized by the Carnegie Foundation as a “Community Engaged Institution,” and is one of only 110 institutions to receive the classification in both curricular engagement, and outreach and partnerships.

Brian Birch, UVU’s associate vice president for engaged learning, says a cornerstone for creating closer ties between the University and residents over the years has been to act as a civic, cultural and educational forum for the community. Those community touch points include political debates, guest lectures from leading scholars and foreign diplomats and a vast array of first-class performing arts and cultural events that allow participants to learn, grow and be exposed to new ideas and perspectives.

“To be truly engaged with our community, the University must provide opportunities to connect with the social fabric in a variety of ways,” President Holland stated in his Feb. 1, 2012, State of the University address regarding UVU’s renewed emphasis on community engagement.

Recent examples of UVU’s expansion of the civic exchange concept include President Holland’s establishment of a Center for Constitutional Studies, the Forum on Engaged Learning’s “For the Love of Reading” literacy conference and a University partnership with Orem City to form a free Community Writing Center resource for residents at the Orem Public Library.

But what is new is UVU’s development of a comprehensive civic engagement strategy (CES) based on three pillars: civic forums, civic visits and a university project. During the past year, Birch and UVU Vice President for University Relations Val Hale labored across divisions to bring together the critical elements of the program that will greatly enhance the University’s community outreach efforts. Along with the Community Relations Council that serves as an exchange for ideas, information and issues of off-campus organizations, Hale and Birch have convened an Engagement Council that consolidates the resources of UVU’s most community-connected faculty, staff and administrators.

The CES is rounded out by the creation of a university project that will bring all the resources of the institution to bear toward a common issue or concern in the community, and the establishment of a community engagement awards program to recognize the significant contributions from individuals and organizations in spurring cooperation.

“One of the things that Val and I are both excited and passionate about is that UVU can establish itself as a civic leader in Utah County and beyond,” Birch says. “We have the resources, the labor, the creativity and the expertise to really make a difference.”

Townhall Teamwork

Nowhere is that vibrant spirit of lending a helping hand off-campus more evident than in opportunities for UVU students to go into the communities. Kyler Ludwig — City Manager. That’s how the senior UVU political science major’s future employee desktop nameplate will read — if he has anything to say about it.

If drive and gumption are any indicators, Ludwig is well on his way to a career in municipal management. For spring semester 2012, he secured an internship with David Tuckett, the city manager of Payson, Utah, through some networking with Luke Peterson, UVU’s director of corporate and community partnerships. Thus far, he’s helped draft a social media policy for the city, wrote a business regulations report and conducted a cost analysis of a fleet vehicle program versus employee car allowance model.

“We’re trying to help the city save money,” Ludwig says. “I think when you look at government right now, at Congress, and what is being done, there are so many problems at the national level. But it’s been very political instead of solving problems. I see local government as place where I can make a difference.”

At the same time, Ludwig, as a member of Peterson’s Applied Public Policy 420 course, embarked on a collaborative multi-disciplinary project with UVU students in public policy, advanced marketing and graphic design sections that all include a rigorous community engagement component. By semester’s end, they’ll have presented a detailed proposal to make the city of Payson’s regulations more business-friendly in order to attract new employers to the city’s industrial park and authored a document that catalogs the benefits to prospective companies of setting up shop in Payson.

“Through the last few years of budget tightening, we’ve had to make cuts and eliminate positions, and one of the things that has suffered is our economic development,” Tuckett says. “If we were to go and hire a consulting firm to help with what the students are doing, we probably couldn’t afford to have the work done. Their contributions are going to be a great benefit to Payson.”

While simultaneously seeking to maximize the quality and quantity of community engaged learning occasions for UVU students, President Holland and his cabinet have hosted civic visits with six local communities’ leaders in recent months, forging new relationships with those organizations and getting a pulse for those communities’ needs and challenges. They will continue to meet with community leaders in UVU’s service region.

“We’re trying to make UVU as relevant in the community as possible,” Hale says.

Citizen Students

University organizations and individual projects aren’t the only UVU entities metaphorically grabbing a shovel to contribute to civic improvement. Entire academic departments, such as the Woodbury School of Business’ master of business degree program, are also reaching out.

For David Jimenez, a second-year graduate student in the MBA program, time is a resource that is continually in short supply. Employed full-time at Zions Bank as an executive banker, he is also a husband and father of five children ages 15 years to 10 months, and a lay clergy leader in his church congregation. Simply scratching together enough time and energy to study and complete his business management program assignments can be daunting.

But Jimenez doesn’t hesitate when it comes to carving out some clock for his MBA cohort’s capstone project’s adoption of the Provo-based nonprofit Community Health Connect, a small group that seeks to help low-income and uninsured Utah County residents get the specialized health and dental care they need but can’t afford. The cohort’s 40 students, all who are working professionals themselves, are divided up into teams tasked with developing various elements of a strategic plan, marketing plan, fundraising system and other organizational assets for the group. Four years ago, Jimenez was asked by his employer to sit on Community Health Connect’s board of directors, and it was through him that the MBA faculty and students learned of the small nonprofit’s great need for organizational consultation.

Between his two connections to CHC and its considerable humanitarian mission of aiding families in the community he lives in, the endeavor has made a believer out of Jimenez in the value of community-engaged capstones as opposed to a project based on a replicated scenario.

“I think, honestly and selfishly, the way most of us saw it was, if I’m going to spend hours and hours on something, it better darned well not be a simulation,” Jimenez says. “Our biggest point is we want to do something that we can show that we’ve helped a person, helped the community and somebody benefitted from it. If we can raise $50,000 for an organization and add medical and dental providers for the organization, if we can actually do that, then that’s an impact we’ve made.”

Starr Stratford, Community Health Connect’s executive director, says the nonprofit is limited in the number of people it can assist by the quantity of doctors and dentists who agree to extend their services. In addition to a doctor recruitment strategy, the MBA students are devising marketing and budgeting plans that will strengthen the charity’s long-term financial viability.

“It’s been really nice to work with a group of professionals,” she says. “Most of them are working in the community, have skill sets and connections they use in conjunction with their current employment and are settled here. I’m really excited about that. I think it’s got great potential.”

A Barn Raising

In addition to the sustainability of UVU community projects, Birch and Hale wanted to employ the CES to create a framework to get the entire campus on-board with a multi-year university project. Because three out of 10 Utah County third graders are not reading at grade level, President Holland’s cabinet has identified a United Way of Utah County program focused on improving literacy and numeracy in area public schools as the cause the University will adopt. Beginning fall of 2012, UVU will concentrate its considerable human resources to do good by tutoring the children who need it the most.

“In general terms, universities are one of the foundational structures in the communities in which they reside. In our particular case, we are one of the largest organizations in the valley. We have an organizational imperative to help and contribute to that enterprise,” Birch says. “We have everything in place, if we can pull everything together and cooperate, we can have a huge impact. We have 33,000 students looking for projects. If we can channel and direct that, we can be a very potent force.”

Though only in its infancy, UVU’s new civic engagement strategy is already bringing the community together, improving neighborhoods and changing lives — including those who came to campus to obtain a higher education and who will depart as society-engaged citizen alumni.