We Are Community Engagement Professionals

Harriett Steinbach, Assistant Director for Service Learning, Illinois State University

December 19, 2018

“Do you consider yourself a Student Affairs professional or an Academic Affairs professional?”

The question, posed by my director, certainly made me think.

While I’ve been at Illinois State University for 12 years now, I do have a background in the nonprofit sector. During graduate school I worked part-time at a nonprofit for 2.5 years, and my first full-time, professional job after graduate school was doing fundraising and public relations for a nonprofit. Those were important experiences that informed me as I did community service work with students. Those experiences would turn out to be key to giving me some legitimacy 10 years later as I began more intensive community partnership work. For all intents and purposes, however, working 12 years in higher education makes you a higher education professional. 

In spring 2017, Illinois State University began planning for the newly formed Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CESL). My position working with community service was being moved from the Dean of Students office, in the Division of Student Affairs, to CESL. CESL is one of the only dual-reporting units at Illinois State. The Center reports to both the Provost and the Vice President for Student Affairs. We are financially supported by both Academic Affairs and Student Affairs.

At CESL, I became the first dedicated staff person to work with service-learning and that meant the first dedicated staff person to holistically and systematically work with community organizations in Bloomington-Normal to make connections with Illinois State University, primarily connecting to faculty for classroom experiences. 

I began by conducting several meetings with community partners; it became clear that there were key academic departments that I needed to connect with. I started meeting with department chairs and as word got out about our department, working directly with faculty who were interested in incorporating service-learning into their course.  My time was spent talking with community organizations, talking with faculty, and hosting events and meetings where community organizations and faculty could come together.

So back to the original question. Am I a Student Affairs professional or an Academic Affairs professional? Both? At the time I said, “I don’t know.” This question really stuck with me, though. What was my professional identity? I had worked for ten years in Student Affairs.  Through my work with CESL, I work deeply in both Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. I also bridge those gaps to make community connections.

Ultimately, I decided that I was neither Academic Affairs nor Student Affairs. Instead, I identify as a Community Engagement Professional. My orientation is toward the community.

This semester I had the opportunity to participate in a book group through our Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology.  We read Publicly Engaged Scholars.  This book talks about the future of community engagement.  Two big takeaways for me were the ideas of boundary spanning and transdisciplinarity. 

Community engagement work is grey; it does not always easily align itself with one division or one department.  In fact, when community organizations work with a university, they are more concerned about getting problems solved and effective partnerships than where their partner is situated on the organizational chart.

Why does any of this matter?  First, let’s talk about civic ethos—the infusion of democratic values into everyday practices, structures and interactions; institutions that emphasize open-mindedness; a spirit of public mindedness that influences the goals of the institution and its engagement with local communities. 

We must look beyond our organizational placement to achieve our institution’s civic goals and meet our community’s needs.  We must not view ourselves exclusively from our roles within our designated departments.  To create a campus with civic ethos, we must all see ourselves as community engagement professionals.

There’s also civic agency—the capacity of citizens to work collaboratively across differences; solve problems; institutional design to constitute groups and institutions for sustainable collective action. To model civic agency faculty and staff must work collaboratively.  When we do, there is a larger and sustainable impact on our communities and on our students.

So, while I might currently be situated in both Student Affairs and Academic Affairs, I believe that my true identity is that of a community engagement professional. The work I do on a daily basis helps cross those Academic Affairs/Student Affairs boundaries and bridges the gaps between Illinois State University and organizations within the larger community.

My ultimate goal—and the goal of CESL—is to continue to serve this community and to help create learning environments for Illinois State students that do the same. We are creating active citizens and instilling responsibility toward community.

I am a community engagement professional. What’s your community engagement story?  What’s your identity?

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