Professor Heather Evans and Professor Christa Moore have decided to move ahead with plans for a community engagement initiative, even though the COVID-19 pandemic slowed their plans. Moore and Evans detail their plans for CONNECT in an article they wrote this week. Thanks

By Heather Evans and Christa Moore

​2020 was supposed to be our year. Having spent the Fall 2019 semester developing a strategically collaborative plan for a new community-engaged service learning initiative at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, we were prepared and ready to roll out the new initiative the following Spring term. Everything was falling into place. Dates were set for welcome events, rooms were booked for open forums with interested faculty, community partners, and students, and then came COVID-19. Before we could hold our first event, our plans were quickly diverted, and we feared shelved. What has happened with our initiative, UVA Wise CONNECTS, since April 2020 has been surprisingly awe-inspiring, and we have discovered that there are still many avenues for coordinatingexperiential learning even in the era of a global pandemic.

​About us. The University of Virginia’s College at Wise is a small, public liberal arts college nestled against the scenic backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Southwest Virginia. Part of rural Appalachia and embedded in the culture there, UVA Wise is an idyllic place for testing the burgeoning potential of cross-departmental and interdisciplinary campus-to-community collaboration. The history of the college’s development as a central part of the community undergirds the ongoing importance of relationships between members of the campus and the citizens of local cities and towns. Faculty and students alike from both near and far often share how drawn they are to that sense of community connectedness which provides a unique feeling of small-town familiarity and belonging. Our plan for community-engaged service learning further fosters the strengths of these community ties.

​Our Plan. UVA Wise CONNECTS (which stands for Community Oriented Networks for Negotiating Engaged and Collaborative Teaching Strategies) is a campus-wide interdisciplinary service learning initiative. Designed with the goal of bridging campus-to-community outreach and learning, UVA Wise CONNECTS is founded upon principles of collaboration and multidisciplinarity. The core of our community engagement plan is the tripartite involvement of faculty, students, and community members working together to strategically develop experiential learning opportunities to the benefit of all. Colleges with an emphasis on service learning and community engagement produce graduates who are more informed citizens who strive for the common good. Students become more likely to try to contribute to the health of their community.

​Successes. UVA Wise CONNECTS has already encountered a number of anticipated and unanticipated successes. In spite of COVID-19 safety restrictions, we have had multiple opportunities to engage in collaborative relationship building across multiple disciplinary departments and within the community. Faculty, students, and community partners have engaged in sharing ideas for experiential learning with interest and enthusiasm. Instead of holding in-person events with faculty, we have offered virtual open forum discussions in the style of fireside chats that have been well attended, and those conversations have resulted in critical opportunities for brainstorming safe and viable strategies for planning pandemic-oriented service learning assignments as part of classes now officially designated as ACE (Academic Community Engagement) courses. UVA Wise CONNECTS has also offered a pathway to more formal recognition of the faculty and community partners who have already been doing service learning, and by building upon those existing partnerships and past experiences of effectively planning service learning projects, we all continue to benefit even more. These shared successes have further motivated us to continue identifying and working through challenging barriers to experiential learning.

​Barriers. One of the biggest and most affecting barriers communities and academies of higher education face is the insularity of separate offices, programs, divisions, and departments. Although we have experienced a great deal of interdisciplinary engagement and collaboration so far, UVA Wise CONNECTS​has not yet been broadly adopted college and community wide. We recognize this barrier is shaped more by the reality and practicality of time constraints rather than lack of interest. Faculty and students balance rigorous course loads. Community partners balance their day-to-day work schedules. Travel is a barrier too, especially for students without a car readily available or the financial ability to travel across a widespread geographic region of mountainous Appalachian terrain. COVID-19 continues to present a whole other set of barriers including radically transforming the normal modes of academic instruction, including directed opportunities for on-site community based experiential learning; however, we continue to progress forward and negotiate realistic strategies for confronting these barriers.

​Going forward. We find hope and optimism in pursuingthe collaborative potential for faculty, student, and community partnerships. With a continued focus on relationship buildingand supporting the vastly creative ideas for experiential learning faculty and community partners have generated so far, UVA Wise CONNECTS has grown in scope and opportunity. We recently established a formal faculty review committeeconsisting of vested faculty with experience as the first ACE cohort upon approval of their courses for a formal Service Learning (SL) designation. Our initiative now has the ability to assess and evaluate progress tracking and we, as well as other faculty, can engage in research on experiential learning and the collaborative processes involved in bridging campus-to-community outreach. We also foresee future opportunities for students to receive a professional certificate or the potential formation of a minor in community engagement, a valuable acknowledgement of professional experience and career readiness.​

​An invitation. We envision a number of ways in which community partners can partner with the college as fellow teachers, mentors, and guides for experiential learning students. Community-based on-site learning is a tremendously valuable source for professional development for students. Taking an active role in student learning is a powerful way to engage and influence the next generation of community leaders. Community partners report that teaching students about the work they do is enriching and affirms the mission and goals of their work. Many community partners also find their involvement with colleges and universities to add prestige to the reputation of their services.

With these ideas in mind, we want to welcome all potential community partners to join us as we have our first of many open forum-style fireside chats to discuss your ideas for community engagement with students and faculty from the college next Thursday, October 8th at 2pm. Please contact Heather Evans (hke2j@uvawise.edu) and Christa Moore (cjm4vx@uvawise.edu) to let us know if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, and to receive Zoom call log in information.

We look forward to working with all of you in the future!

Heather & Christa
1