Universities can add value

By Jocelyn DeVance Taliaferro

Colleges and universities engage in community activities that are initiated as a response to needs of economically depressed urban and rural areas near campus boundaries.

Examples of university-community partnerships include teaching, mentoring, technology development, bridging the digital divide, offering health services, community organizing, participatory research, “business-climate” studies, and economic development.

Both communities and universities have much to offer, and opportunities for these partnerships are vast.

Community residents have a wealth of often untapped, knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Residents have the resilience and spirit needed to energize a change process but may need leadership development training to best utilize their capacity.

The social networks and common bonds of residents can be particularly helpful in engaging in community development strategies.

Existing community organizations are also potential assets for community-university partnerships.

These include faith communities, nonprofits, sororities and fraternities, and small businesses providing varied health, human and social services to community residents.

University-community partnerships can be difficult to achieve due to barriers in each domain.

First, many faculty members are simply not trained in techniques for implementing university-community partnerships.

While faculty members are often expected to incorporate community-based research and service learning into their coursework, it is often not rewarded.

Second, many communities are hesitant to utilize students in their activities.

Residents question students’ skills, knowledge and commitment to work effectively in community organizations.

Further, students’ semester schedules often do not coincide with the needs of local community projects.

Students engage in community-based or outreach activities as part of a one-semester class and often leave the project before it is over.

Finally, trust is a barrier to community-based research.

Many communities available for these collaborations have been the “subject” of research. Interventions have been executed in and on the community without the input of community residents.

As a result, many residents have developed a healthy distrust of outsiders providing services and are skeptical of the sustainability of university driven community-service activities.

However, university-community partnerships offer opportunities for significant change, development and learning.

They are excellent mechanisms for residents, students and faculty to collaborate on solutions for a myriad of needs.

However, it is important that these partnerships be entered carefully and strategically.

Each partner has to be fully aware of the goals, mission and culture of the other, and each needs to hold realistic expectations for the outcomes of the partnership.

Jocelyn DeVance Taliaferro is an assistant professor in the department of social work at North Carolina State University and is affiliated with the NCSU Institute for Nonprofits.

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