Feature News

Community engaged learning deepens student learning, fosters social change

May 19, 2017

Throughout the year, North Central College students engage in community service as part of their academic coursework, student club involvement, sports teams, residence hall activities, and ministry and service life.

“Doing projects with community partners helps students experience the real world and real challenges. They learn to use their academic knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs,” said Jennifer Keys, director of North Central’s Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence (CAFÉ) and professor of sociology.

North Central College defines this as community engaged learning (CEL). It’s an approach to teaching and learning that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection.

As director of CAFÉ, Keys is charged with providing a stronger infrastructure of support for faculty and their CEL efforts. “Our faculty have already been doing this work exceptionally well, so when we can provide even more support and resources for them, I think it’s going to be exciting,” said Keys.

She and Kristin Geraty, associate professor of sociology, cochair a 10-member council that’s developing these resources. They’re also embracing best practices and a foundation of knowledge for community engaged pedagogy, establishing learning outcomes for students, and expanding community partnerships.

One of the College’s valuable community partners is the nonprofit organization Community Access Naperville (CAN). Each month, students involved with Enactus work with differently abled adults to count and package single-serve cups of Conscious Bean coffee to be sold in local markets.

“Working with CAN is a meaningful way our students can nurture social change and integrate community service with their academic and Enactus work,” said Jerry Thalmann, faculty advisor for Enactus and associate professor of accounting. The Enactus chapter works with farmers in Guatemala to import, market and sell their coffee in the United States.

Enactus isn’t alone. Accounting classes have provided auditor reviews for nonprofits and prepared tax returns for low-income individuals. Communication and sociology classes have raised funds for organizations that address unmet needs in the community.

Because CEL has the power to connect students more deeply in their learning experiences, said Keys, it’s been identified as one of the College’s High-Impact Educational Practices: “These practices are at the heart of a North Central College education.”  

As part of student club responsibilities, 70-some student clubs are required to complete at least one community service project during the year. Those projects have included helping nonprofit organizations with fundraisers, preparing and serving meals for a homeless shelter, packing meals for the hungry and more.

In athletics, all 26 sports teams participated in community service projects this year, said Assistant Athletic Director Susan Kane. “We encourage athletic teams to get involved, although it’s not required. Serving others is in line with our mission as a college and the Division III philosophy.”

The women’s soccer team, for example, packed meals at Feed My Starving Children events and worked with a nonprofit that provides housing and support services.  

Head soccer coach Andrew Gamarra said, “We feel service leadership opportunities teach valuable lessons that students will take with them for the rest of their lives. We’re fortunate to be able to give back, and we want our student-athletes to think on a deeper level about what that means for us and the people we’re helping.”

Other athletic teams have worked with Special Olympics events and nearby elementary schools to build a garden, teach volleyball, read to students and more.

“Our key goals are to deepen student learning and foster positive social change in our neighboring communities,” said Keys. “As a college, we want to create a community engaged learning program that earns national recognition for its excellence.”

[Photo, below: Jennifer Keys, director of CAFÉ and professor of sociology; Jerry Thalmann, associate professor of accounting, faculty advisor for Enactus; Susan DeNigris ’02 Kane, assistant athletic director]