WCU earns national recognition for engagement efforts in local communities

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has recognized Western Carolina University’s emphasis on community engagement and its link to engaged teaching, research and service by selecting the university to receive its 2015 Community Engagement Classification.

Announcement of WCU’s classification came Wednesday, Jan. 7, from Anthony S. Byrk, president of the Carnegie Foundation. The classification remains in effect until 2025.

Western Carolina earned the recognition through demonstrating alignment of campus mission, culture, leadership, resources and practices that support dynamic community engagement, with numerous examples of institutionalized practices of community engagement, Byrk said.

Examples include:

WCU student Kristen Metcalf joins volunteers with the Jackson County Glean Team at a glean at Darnell Farms.

WCU student Kristen Metcalf joins volunteers with the Jackson County Glean Team at a glean at Darnell Farms.

* An ongoing partnership between the university and Dillsboro to help the nearby town rebound economically from the loss of a major tourist attraction. Since January 2010, WCU has collaborated on numerous projects involving dozens of faculty and staff and hundreds of students across many departments and disciplines, ranging from small business counseling to an interdisciplinary effort to create and promote a mobile web application for town attractions.

* A gleaning project to recover leftover items after the harvesting of crops to help meet the environmental and nutritional needs of the local community. The effort has resulted in student and community volunteers collecting and distributing nearly 25,000 pounds of produce valued at approximately $35,000.

* A collaboration between WCU’s College of Health and Human Sciences and the Vecinos Farmworker Health Program. Through the project, WCU faculty conduct and disseminate applied research, students gain real-world clinical experience and migrant farmworkers receive care, including help with musculoskeletal problems commonly associated with agricultural work.

WCU physical therapy student Mary Goforth evaluates the wrist area of a farmworker as part of an assistance project with the Vecinos Farmworker Health Program.

WCU physical therapy student Mary Goforth evaluates the wrist area of a farmworker as part of an assistance project with the Vecinos Farmworker Health Program.

* Work by WCU’s Public Policy Institute with local governments and nonprofit agencies across the region to tackle political, administrative and social problems affecting the quality of life in Western North Carolina. Faculty and students have assisted with local government surveys and citizen satisfaction polls and helped launch the Western North Carolina Food Policy Council to address policy needs for agricultural development and food insecurity in the state’s seven westernmost counties.

“It is heartening to see this level of commitment and activity. Clearly, higher education is making significant strides in finding ways to engage with and contribute to important community agendas,” Byrk said. “There is much to celebrate.”

The university’s classification in the community engagement category comes as it also recently received word of its inclusion on a national honor roll of institutions of higher education that provide exemplary service and civic engagement in the communities of which they are a part.

WCU is among the colleges and universities listed in the 2014 President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. It marks the seventh consecutive year in which WCU was selected for inclusion on the list. Schools are named to the honor roll by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

“I am so proud that our university continues to be recognized as a national leader in community service, service learning and engagement with the region we are charged to serve,” said WCU Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar. “Community service and outreach truly provide a win-win scenario for all involved, as the projects and partnerships benefit not only our students by providing them with some real-world experiences but also the members of our community and residents of our region by helping provide solutions to meet their needs.”

In the timeframe considered for the 2014 honor roll, an estimated 6,600 WCU students participated in community service or academic service-learning projects and completed about 58,350 hours of community service, said Lane Perry, director of WCU’s Center for Service Learning.

“This truly is a story more than 125 years in the making. The university was founded in 1889 to help improve the lives of the people of this region by providing them with educational opportunities,” Perry said.

“Today, our students provide thousands of hours of service to local schools, ensure that the county’s soup kitchen has donations and volunteers, clean rivers and trails, and share their skills with other groups. Without this service, many nonprofits in our community would not be able to thrive as they do. Moreover, the educative value associated with these types of experiences should not go unnoticed, untapped or be undervalued as they are sources for transformation,” he said.

Western Carolina was originally designated as a community-engaged university by the Carnegie Foundation, an education policy and research center, in 2008. Reaffirmation of the designation is especially meaningful because the foundation’s standards for achieving the “community-engaged university” status have increased, with institutions having to demonstrate a commitment to assessing the impact of engagement and outreach and using the results of that assessment to benefit the community and the university, said Carol Burton, WCU associate provost for undergraduate studies.

“The latest Carnegie classification as a community-engaged university provides independent, outside validation of what we value internally. This is evidence that community engagement and outreach are not just mere buzzwords, but are part and parcel of who Western Carolina University is as an institution,” Burton said.

Although many faculty and staff members have been involved in community service projects, Betty Farmer, a WCU professor of communication who previously served as the university’s special assistant to the chancellor for Dillsboro, was the primary architect of the university’s submission for the Carnegie reclassification as a community-engaged institution, Burton said. Farmer worked closely with Perry of the Center for Service Learning and with David Onder of the Office of Institutional Planning and Effectiveness over two semesters to compile the extensive report.

Through her work with Dillsboro and her previous role as a provost fellow for community engagement, Farmer said she has seen firsthand the importance of service learning and community engagement to the university and its surrounding communities alike.

“For any project, initiative or collaboration to be truly designated as ‘community engagement,’ it must be mutually beneficial for all partners – to faculty members in their research or outreach activities, to students by providing them with real-world experience using the skills they have learned in the classroom or through extracurricular activities, and to our neighboring communities by helping identify and solve issues that they are facing,” Farmer said.

Western Carolina is among 240 U.S. colleges and universities selected by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to receive its 2015 Community Engagement Classification. The 240 institutions join the 121 institutions that earned the classification during the 2010 selection process.

For more information about engaged learning at WCU, visit the website engagement.wcu.edu.

WCU students who volunteered to help transform a closed prison into a shelter, halfway house and soup kitchen help with painting at the Haywood Pathways Center during "WCU Flip the Prison Day" on Friday, Sept. 26.

WCU students who volunteered to help transform a closed prison into a shelter, halfway house and soup kitchen help with painting at the Haywood Pathways Center during “WCU Flip the Prison Day” on Friday, Sept. 26, 2014.