Community Engaged Learning benefits students and neighborhoods

For Lexi Kaili, the Bennion Center at the University of Utah was a “safe haven”—a special place where like-minded people gathered to, as she says, “cook up ideas to change the world.”

Kaili, a Bennion Scholar who graduated last May, is just one of the hundreds of students at the U who have benefited from the center’s pairing of classroom learning with community engagement opportunities.

Community engagement is a top priority at the U and the center is an ideal way for students, staff and faculty to contribute positive action to catalyze personal growth and sustainable impacts. Maintaining our connection to the greater Salt Lake City community is part of what makes the U a leading and cutting-edge institution. It makes us a part of something bigger, providing students, staff and faculty with limitless opportunities both on campus and beyond.

Students of all majors benefit immensely from having the opportunity to integrate classroom theories and concepts with real-life scenarios and actions outside the classroom. Learning and teaching through civic engagement is a unique, hands-on approach that adds to the university experience. It fosters a sense of belonging through embracing diversity, practicing critical reflection and investing time for the common good.

The Bennion Center, located in the heart of campus, offers multiple ways for students to engage in direct community service, experiential learning and leadership opportunities. This innovative form of learning-by-doing is called Community Engaged Learning (CEL).

At the U, faculty from 11 colleges and 56 departments offer more than 220 classes that meet the CEL-designated course credit requirement. This means there is a class for everyone, regardless of academic interest and professional aspiration.

In addition to offering its own for-credit CEL courses, the Bennion Center recently introduced a brand-new Community Engagement Certificate. This certificate adds a student’s sustained focus on community-engaged work to their academic record. This academic credential is a great way to bolster a resume—separating service-oriented students from the rest of the pack—and catching the eyes of recruiters, especially those representing non-profit organizations.

Students are also encouraged to check out the Bennion Scholars program, which considers applications year-round; participants can earn a “Bennion Scholars” transcript designation. This program promotes the connection of student potential to the power of the community. Scholars apply their personal and academic interests to address community concerns through a faculty-mentored, community-focused Capstone project.

Faculty members can apply for CEL course designation—for both undergraduate and graduate course levels—regardless of the subject they teach as long as the course meets the best practices standards of a CEL class. CEL designated courses are eligible for additional financial support in the form of CEL Teaching Assistantship Awards and CEL Awards from the Office of the President.

“The Bennion Center prioritizes the integration of community engagement opportunities for students with classroom learning, which I believe facilitates a higher degree of learning,” Kaili said. “Being exposed to community challenges and a wider array of real-world strategies as a student gave me a much better understanding of what is possible, what has been done and what types of solutions have been missing. As a student, I had the opportunity to lead initiatives by partnering with practitioners in the community and have the support of BC peers and mentors.”

Megan Medina, the program manager for Bennion Scholars and teacher for BENN 2030 Intro to Civic Leadership, said faculty who are interested in transforming their courses into CEL can attend workshops and review our resources on the faculty page on the center’s website.

“We encourage faculty who are already doing this work but whose courses may not have the official CEL designation to apply for it,” Medina said.

Sara Hart is the director of Student and Community Engagement at the College of Nursing and the recipient of the Bennion Center’s 2019 Public Service Professor Award.

“It is how I define myself as an educator,” Hart said when asked how teaching CEL courses benefited her as an educator. “If I am teaching any health professions student how to learn and fulfill their professional role and the voice of our community is not represented, then I am failing both my students and my community. CEL provides me with the most meaningful pedagogical approach to build academic-community partnerships that benefit all involved.”

Do not miss out on this worthwhile experience during your time at the U. For students, be sure to ask your academic advisor about enrolling in a CEL course and please consider taking the introductory BENN course (2020 Pathways to Community Engagement or 2030 Intro to Civic Leadership) this fall semester. For more information about Community Engaged Learning (CEL) or any of the Bennion Center Volunteer or Learning Abroad opportunities—Cuba in the fall semester and Costa Rica in the spring semester. Engage today!