Something near and dear to my heart is the connection between universities and their regional communities. I’m not necessarily talking about town-gown relationships-though these are important to creating healthy and vibrant communities both on and off campus. The connection I am most interested in is that of the resources of the university benefitting the region within which it is located.
Virginia Tech is a land-grant institution, meaning that the land the university occupies was given in order to advance more “practical” education rather than the liberal arts. At many land grant institutions agricultural research stations were set up under the Cooperative Extension program created to “advance agriculture, the environment, human health and well-being, and communities” (Virginia Cooperative Extension). According to their website, “Virginia Cooperative Extension puts university knowledge into the hands of people. We are credible experts and educators who provide information, education, and tools you can use every day to improve your life” (Virginia Cooperative Extension).
This community engagement is something that I believe should advance in higher education. I do not believe it should be the sole responsibility of land grant institutions nor do I believe that university knowledge and resources should remain in the so-called ‘Ivory Tower’ that is academia. Higher education was created as a public good to advance and further educate society. I believe that better connecting education to resolving social problems is one way that we can advance many goals in one concerted effort. I would hope that this would be the truest definition of Ut Prosim.
The department I work for is focused on service learning- engaging students and faculty in local and regional community-identified needs. One aspect of this work is bridging the gap between faculty members, their courses/area of expertise, and local community organizations or issues. Sometimes faculty determine that the relationships necessary for this to be successful are too much work and instead assign students an “hours requirement” rather than an intentional and engaged learning experience that advances responses to needs.
This is something my department helps to address and facilitate. It is a constant uphill battle, however, as faculty wishing to designate their course as a “service learning course” simply have to check a box on a form with the registrar. There are no checks and balances to determine if the community engagement is truly service learning or if it is simply a volunteer hours counting opportunity for the students. This is something that I would love to change at Virginia Tech. There is an entire academic field of service learning with its own intentional theory and practice and there are many overlapping and interdisciplinary fields that create a Venn Diagram with service learning. It is unconscionable, in my opinion, for any institution put its stamp of approval on service learning designated courses without there being a rigorous process for said designation. This is something that I believe should change here at Virginia Tech as well as within higher education as a whole.
Virginia Cooperative Extension. (n.d.). Retrieved December 04, 2017, from https://ext.vt.edu/