By Michelle Lynch
Community is about doing and feeling. It’s about people coming together to solve a problem, to share in an experience, or to help or care for others. Community is also the feeling of acknowledgement and belonging. There are a variety of operating theories, models, and methods related to community development like sustainable, pragmatic, social action, and social planning. I particularly like to integrate a kind of asset-based community development into my work in higher education. An asset-based approach appreciates and recognizes the many talents and resources individuals already possess and helps them navigate where they want to go.
Generally speaking, the goals of community development are empowerment and social justice. Bill Lee (1999) wrote that empowerment is “the sense in people that they have the ability and right to influence their environment” (p. 43). Within these goals are five objectives: involvement or participation, a sense of community, organization development, concrete benefits, and social learning. Examples of these are all around us in higher education. We intentionally create opportunities for our students to experience community through our services, programming, clubs, events, and residence. We have initiatives and programs for students to further their skill development outside the classroom such as service learning, work integrated learning, and research partnerships. Academic staff and faculty are working together with service departments to launch student success programming, share research findings, collaborate with program advisory members, and host events.
There is ample literature related to community development in academic advising and student affairs and services. There is even a chapter dedicated to community development in Students Services: A Handbook for the Profession (Roberts, 2011). In it the author writes that developing community is at the core of helping students prepare for their “interdependent and global” future (p. 448). There are relevant books and articles describing ways that academic departments and service departments can collaborate together (some are listed below). In “The Recipe for Promising Practices in Community Colleges” (2010) the authors’ research findings suggest that there are four characteristics that played key roles in improving achievement rates in community colleges: cohesion, cooperation, consistency, and “connection—the ability of program personnel to sustain interdependent relationships with internal and external entities, such as other departments within the college and industry representatives” (p.31). Community is forged in the connections between students and students, students and staff/faculty, and all stakeholders and the institution.
We can choose the level of our individual participation in our communities and, to some of us, it can be taxing to ‘do more’, especially financially. But, seemingly small gestures can help create a sense of community and do not have to cost extra money. Here are a few:
#1 Acknowledge People:
- Sometimes, I do not meet up with a colleague the entire year, even though we work on the same campus! Once or twice a year I like to visit other departments (sometimes I bring treats) and say ‘hello’. It is that brief interaction with some people I know and meeting people I don’t yet know which are moments that build community. Sometimes when I visit, I take a few moments to thank someone for helping me with solving a problem or answering a question. And, if I can’t do a visit, I phone or email them.
- We train our new Student Learning Centre staff over a two-day workshop. The coming together of new student staff and returning student staff provides an excellent opportunity for community building. I was invited to facilitate a session to this group on the topic of giving and receiving feedback. While I delivered the fun, engaging, experiential, and collaborative exercise, community engagement was definitely happening. Further community building came later when there was a few minutes left before the next session and we were all chatting. The students and I had a lovely, and totally unrelated, conversation about music. We shared in the experience of learning from each other and sharing something that is special. What was unscripted became a very special moment of connection.
#2 Invite People:
- When the semester is up and running our Student Learning Centre (SLC) also has an open house each Fall and Winter term to welcome and share with students, staff, and faculty about the programs and services offered. The organizer makes it fun with food and prizes. Also, the smell of popcorn attracts people (it’s science). Staff and faculty have a chance to meet their inter-departmental colleagues and catch up. Students come for the chance to win prizes and have a snack but while they’re visiting they are meeting new people and sharing in the experience of exploring what the SLC can offer.
- I have invited my colleagues and hosted lunch and learns to watch pertinent lecture videos or webinars and have our lunch together. Then, I guide a discussion of our impressions of content and any ‘takeaways’ relevant to our experience, reflections on the past, and ideas for the future. Afterwards, at least one colleague will declare “we should do this again!”
- Our Mechanical and Electro-Mechanical Engineering students have capstone or a final project course. In this course students conduct research with an industry partner and design and develop a prototype. The department puts on a project showcase in the cafeteria and common spaces and student groups design posters and demonstrate their work. I have participated in the organization of this event for many years. What I do, however, is not just list the event in the newsletter email. I personally hand deliver invitations to my college community members: other academic departments, facilities management, the bookstore staff, human resources, etc. It makes me so happy when folks from the Registrar’s office come and talk with the students about their projects. It makes people feel happy to be invited. It makes people feel good to belong.
These examples may seem small and insignificant. These moments of connection can be glossed over and taken for granted. However, our acknowledgement of and time spent with others serves as a model for our students. Not every experience will be the best or the most positive, but the experiences students have and the connections they make during their time at our institutions are significant.
Many books and articles detail how a program or service came to be and how a new initiative or partnership increased student persistence rates, student satisfaction, or program quality. However, it is the ‘why’ we do these things that what we must attend to. Peter Block (2018) writes that “the key to creating or transforming community, then, is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others” (p.10). It is through these moments which propels communication, furthers understanding, launches creativity, and motivates us for action. It is connection that transforms us from simply doing the same old things to creating something new, something that may not have even been considered before the connection. Building community requires intentionally creating opportunities for belonging.
What have been your moments of building community? Let us know in the comments!
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