Odd Couples: Surprising Community Engagement Connections
Sometimes it isn’t such a bad thing to be forced to eat your words. When the Executive Director of a local not-for-profit organization attended a recent networking event hosted by Career Development and Experiential Learning (CDEL), she was eager to find Memorial researchers to work with, but not particularly optimistic about finding connections with people in one particular faculty. “She said ‘I hope I don’t end up talking to a scientist, because I can’t see what we’d be able to work on together,’” recalled Lisa Russell with a smile. “Little did she know that she’d meet Dr. Erika Merschrod from Chemistry. They realized there are actually a number of opportunities where they could collaborate, and the rest is history!”
And it isn’t just community groups who find it difficult to make contact with possible collaborators. One faculty participant told Ms. Russell that she was only really interested in meeting with one of the community groups, assuming that her work wouldn’t be relevant to any of the others. In order to make the numbers work, she was assigned short meetings with five community participants- to her amazement, she found solid, interesting potential linkages with three, and is currently working with them on possible community engaged learning opportunities.
The CDEL event helped bridge the gap, bringing together faculty members and community partners with the goal of finding common ground. As they met and discussed their priorities and interests, initial hesitations evaporated. “The best part about the event was the preconceptions falling away,” said Ms. Russell. “Once they started talking to each other they realized they had more links than they suspected- the sense of excitement and discovery in the room was amazing!”
The experience illustrates a challenge that is common in creating public engagement partnerships, especially those related to community engaged learning. “Identifying a good partner, and imagining the benefits that the partnership could have for students and the public partners alike can be difficult,” said Ms. Russell. “We know that Memorial is a huge resource for this province, and there’s also this incredible wealth of expertise outside of the university; however, bringing them together isn’t always easy.”
Despite the challenges, Ms. Russell believes that the benefits to students, community groups, and even faculty are significant. By providing students with the opportunity to connect with these experienced and passionate public partners, their learning experience is made that much more tangible,” explained Ms. Russell. “They get to see that what they are studying exists beyond the classroom, and has real and sometimes surprising connections to the “real world.” It really breaks down the barriers that can exist between educational institutions and the people and communities they serve.”