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by Elizabeth Griffiths, Emory University
"Service learning" and "engaged scholarship" are not simply the latest buzzwords in academic discourse. For nearly 30 years, sociology departments around the nation have been actively involved in building strong and collaborative partnerships between the academy and their local communities. Service learning initiatives traditionally take the form of internships that place undergraduates in nonprofit, corporate, or government organizations to work directly on projects at the site for a semester. These internship experiences are important for developing students’ human, social, and cultural capital, as well as fostering a commitment to civic participation and community involvement. More recently, the service learning movement has expanded to incorporate various forms of action-oriented research or "engaged scholarship" programs that use and produce scientific knowledge in combination with programmatic, evaluative, and collaborative work alongside community partners.
Engaged scholarship blends pure research in the academy and real-world experiential learning with the purpose of generating practical strategies for alleviating complex social problems. For example, Markese Bryant, a sociology major and Bonner Scholar at Morehouse College, currently works with the Green for All movement to promote environmental justice. Markese translates his knowledge of social and environmental issues into tangible social action by spearheading campus-wide recycling efforts and producing an educational rap video that highlights the devastating effects of pollution and poverty in his community. Likewise, at Emory University, teams of Community Building and Social Change fellows capitalize on their methodological skills by designing community surveys to assess local conditions and the potential for coalition-building in collaboration with various neighborhood organizations. In these and other ways, undergraduate students in Atlanta have been able to apply sociological methods and concepts learned in the classroom to build constructive community partnerships that promote positive social change throughout the city. Due to space constraints, I highlight only a handful of the exciting and varied engaged scholarship initiatives offered by some metro-Atlanta schools below. Each of these programs is focused on building bridges between the university and the larger urban environment; facilitating understanding, empathy, and civic participation among youth; while validating the legitimacy of multiple spheres of knowledge that operate both in the academy and beyond.
A series of programs offered through the Office of Experiential Learning provide students at Agnes Scott College with a wide-range of opportunities for engaged scholarship. One such initiative is the Atlanta Semester Program, which "provides a theoretical and applied examination of women, leadership, and social change" for female undergraduates from local academic institutions. Students in this program are exposed to the research literature on women’s participation in for-profit, non-profit, community, and governmental organizations. Their academic study is complimented with an experiential component wherein students are connected to local female leaders who relay the various successes and challenges faced by women in leadership roles.
The Atlanta University Center, which is one of the largest consortiums of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, includes Clark Atlanta University, the Interdenominational Theological Center, Morehouse College and School of Medicine, and Spelman College. Jointly, these institutions provide extensive opportunities for community involvement and engaged scholarship. For example, the Bonner Office of Community Service at Morehouse College promotes a vibrant "culture of service" through volunteerism and community-based initiatives, such as the Bonner’s Scholar program, the Adam’s Scholar program, and the Community Scholar summer service program. Leadership skills and civic-mindedness are cultivated as scholars work collaboratively with local community partners, making these programs integral to the college’s mission of "developing men with disciplined minds who will lead lives of leadership, service, and self-realization."
In addition to encouraging students to undertake an intensive internship during their senior year, Spelman College’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology is home to the intellectually vigorous SASSAFRAS program (Sociological Anthropological Sisterhood: Scholar Activists for Reshaping Attitudes at Spelman). This initiative develops students’ understanding of themselves as forces of positive change on campus and more broadly in their local and global communities. In the spirit of community engagement, SASSAFRAS does not "aim to build bridges, but rather to burn them down and learn how to fly across abysses that have separated the struggles of all people—to be truly one in our collective struggles to inhabit our lives with purpose and creativity."
Emory University’s Office of University-Community Partnerships (OUCP) seeks to build strong and sustainable communities by blending teaching, research and service in education. One of the major undergraduate initiatives of the OUCP is the Community Building and Social Change Fellowship. This competitive program provides undergraduates with two semesters of instruction on community building and problem-solving, culminating in a summer-long collaborative project with local partners. The program serves as a "gateway" between the university and community organizations, and has generated continued and mutually beneficial relationships that span successive cohorts of fellows.
Students at the Georgia Institute of Technology have the opportunity to participate in one of the largest co-op programs in the country organized by the Division of Professional Practice. For example, sociology undergraduates at the School of History, Technology, and Society are eligible to apply for either a single-semester internship related to their field of study or a more intensive undergraduate co-op program. Successful co-op applicants alternate semesters of academic study with semesters of full-time employment over five years, gaining real-world experience and building professional networks. The co-op program reinforces a commitment to engaged scholarship from the moment that students begin their program through the completion of their degrees.
At Georgia State University, a series of initiatives designed to encourage strong and successful collaboration between faculty, community partners, and undergraduate students are underway. Just one example is the Sociology Department’s Urban Health Initiative, which enriches students’ theoretical and practical understanding of their home communities. Funded in part by the National Science Foundation, the Urban Health Initiative documents the social and health outcomes of public housing resident relocation in metro-Atlanta. Using an innovative methodology, the program matches undergraduate interns to research projects in their home communities. Consequently, students are empowered to contribute expertise based on their own lived experiences while also deepening their understanding of community through the lens of a social scientist.
These and many other community-oriented programs at Atlanta-based schools provide local students with access to valuable experiential learning opportunities. Such programs prepare undergraduates to deal with complex social problems and provide them with the skills and perspective necessary to translate their sociological knowledge into constructive, lasting, and progressive social change. In doing so, today’s undergraduate students are better prepared to become the visionary leaders of tomorrow.
If you find Georgia State University’s community partnership initiatives interesting, plan to attend the ASA’s annual meeting session, GSU’s International Initiatives and Local Community Partnerships: Blending Research and Service, being planned by the Regional Spotlight Committee. This session will highlight international, collaborative, and evaluation research opportunities for students and scholars.