Conference Connects Community Collaborators

Marshall Welch, community engagement expert

July 06, 2018

There are myriad challenges when higher education institutions engage with communities, but the opportunities, outcomes and positive impacts are immeasurable.

That was just one theme that emerged from a recent two-day Community Engagement Institute (CEI) conference hosted at Gonzaga University. The gathering offered various tracks, including those for community partners, faculty members and K-12 teachers.

“It's a lot of work to do this, but the reward on the other end is pretty significant,” Molly Ayers, Director of the Gonzaga Center for Community Engagement, said to a room full of staff, faculty and community partners in a session entitled, “Introduction to Community-Based Research.”  

Many audience members nodded in agreement, then split into small groups to discuss possible research areas and service projects. Collaboration is a goal of CEI and it happened broadly. Topics included innovative partnership models, academic research ideas and service learning.

Marshall Welch, Ph.D., a leading practitioner, researcher and academic in the field of higher education community engagement delivered a lunchtime keynote. Welch is former director of the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA) at Saint Mary’s College in California.

Welch’s message centered on the great opportunity – and obligations – that accompany institutions doing community-based work. He reminded that it’s about accompaniment when institutions choose to engage with local communities on place-based work.

“It’s a great opportunity, because your perspective just broadens so much. We bring an expertise and a knowledge base. At the same time, community partners and neighbors also have an expertise,” said Welch. “It’s so critical to form meaningful partnerships and move away from a more traditional placement model, as we did in our early experiential learning experiences, having our partners at the table and helping us to plan. Everybody wins that way.”

Welch later led a session for higher education community engagement professionals on technical aspects of the discipline and how programs influence strategic goals. He facilitates workshops around the nation with institutions on engagement and helped to develop an assessment “inventory tool” for institutions that is now a standard of evaluation in the field. 

The tool is used by institutions such as Gonzaga as a method to assess how the institutions benchmark nationally against their peers in community engagement efforts. Gonzaga earned recognition for Community Engagement from the Carnegie Foundation in 2015. Read more about the Carnegie status.

This year’s gathering was the fourth CEI event and was presented by its parent organization, Partners in Campus and Community Engagement (PICCE). The group is a cooperative of Gonzaga, Eastern Washington University, Community Colleges of Spokane, Washington State University Health Sciences and Whitworth University.

Representatives from all of those institutions and community partners were present. The energy was high as academic studies were discussed, best practices were shared and ideas were exchanged by longtime and new friends. That’s what it’s all about, said Ayers.

“The real purpose is to bring colleagues together from across the region,” said Ayers. “Our hope is to create this community around community engagement and service learning – starting to build relationships across institutional lines, across nonprofit, and campus communities.”

- Jeff Bunch