The Future: Innovation and Partnership

By Renee C. Brown, Director, MSU Center for Community Engaged Learning and member of CCED's Faculty Board of Advisors

Necessity is the mother of invention.  – Plato 


To say that the impact of the COVID19 Global Pandemic created a whole new level of community needs would be an understatement. Experiencing the struggles and losses across the world during this time has been devastating. Through it all, there have been scientists, doctors, neighbors, educators, and so many others who have continued to seek innovative solutions to society’s most pressing issues. Included in that group are determined and dedicated Michigan State University faculty, staff, students, and community partners. 

As the director of the MSU Center for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL), I have engaged, supported, and witnessed the outstanding efforts of our institution and our community partners. Moving community-engaged learning programs to a virtual format has been both challenging and rewarding for all. We have learned so much. Rethinking how, as partners, we could continue our efforts in effective ways was, and still is, a necessity.  

Our mission: In partnership with campus and community, we advance community engaged learning at Michigan State University and prepare students for lifelong civic and social responsibility. Our team is committed to the work we do with our campus and community partners. This partnership ethos is what drives our teaching both in the classroom and beyond. Situated in the divisions of Student Affairs and Services and University Outreach and Engagement, we bring together best practices for student development and community-engaged teaching and learning. The COVID-19 global pandemic has presented many trials for university and community partners. I am pleased to be able to share here some of the innovative approaches that have led to shared success.  

The MSU Community Engagement Scholars Program (CESP), a jointly sponsored program of the MSU Office of the President and the CCEL, recently completed a full program year in an entirely virtual format. This cohort program, which partners undergraduate students with community partners from several Michigan communities, involves students supporting community and economic development efforts with partners for a full academic year. In addition to supporting community partners, these students also participate in cohort activities all through the program. The cohort learns about community engagement scholarship, teamwork, and professional and personal development. This is a program that is built on partnerships and relationships.  

The 2020-2021 academic year marked the 5th program year for the CESP. The program has over 60 program alumni and has engaged with over 20 community partner organizations from the Michigan communities of Flint, Detroit, and Lansing. This scholars program has demonstrated the value of long-standing relationships between the university and community partners. It has also shown great promise for connecting student success and lifelong engagement to a significant relationship with both community partners and scholars in the cohort. Assessment data and ongoing connections with student scholars and community partners continue to meet the mission of the CCEL.  

This program year, it was not possible for scholars to serve with their community partners or participate in the scholar cohort in person. This year’s cohort of 10 undergraduate students, a graduate student coordinator, and six Lansing area community organizations has never met in person. Their entire program has been in a virtual format from the engagement work between students and partners to the weekly cohort connections and learning sessions. As the founding director of this program, I was not certain that moving these efforts to a virtual format would allow for the relationships and partnerships to grow. I am pleased to share my uncertainty was unfounded. The 2020-2021 CESP cohort and community partners accomplished much by innovating in this new space.  

Scholars and their partners at the City of Lansing developed a neighborhood grant program, created COVID relief packages, and supported a city-wide flood prevention program. These efforts aligned well with scholar and partner efforts with the Capital Area United Way, where CESP scholars contributed to building community programming around health, education, and financial stability.  

Scholars also partnered with the Refugee Development Center to create a newcomer catalog, develop a social media and marketing campaign, and support and promote a virtual fundraiser to replenish funds lost through the inability to do in-person programming. Capacity-building efforts were also very successful at Edgewood Village, where scholars provided outreach to residents that resulted in the development of two essential programs. The first program will provide scholarships to youth residents. The second resulted in free internet access to the Edgewood Village Community. 

As a cohort, the scholars and their coordinator contributed to democratic engagement and voter education. This was essential in a program year that also marked a presidential election year. Partnering with the League of Women Voters and the MSUvote Campus Coalition, the cohort created a social media campaign and informational workshops and virtual discussions.  

All of these accomplishments were achieved while building relationships virtually. At the recent culminating celebration showcase for the event, students and scholars expressed how critical it was to stay connected and focused on the missions of the community partners. Innovating around the challenges of virtual formats proved that community engagement and community partnership is possible even during a global pandemic.  

As we wrap up the spring semester and move into the summer semester, the CCEL has built on the success of the CESP and, in partnership with the Michigan State University Federal Credit Union, launched the Volunteer Innovation Leaders Program. This program connects students with community partners to develop, together, new virtual volunteering opportunities for MSU students and other community volunteers. Similarly, students engaged in this new program also meet as a cohort. The innovations of the CESP have led us to this new venture, which will support partnerships in new ways for years to come. The necessity of virtual community engagement has resulted in new paths to innovation and invention. I am proud to be part of a team that works with students, faculty, and community partners to redesign our work for the new spaces necessary for vibrant and flourishing communities.  

For more information about this program and other opportunities in the MSU Center for Community Engaged Learning, contact Renee C. Brown, M.A., Director,  

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