When Rian Satterwhite came to UNLV four years ago, it was for the opportunity to build the Office of Service Learning and Leadership. As director of the relatively new unit, his initial focus was on expanding community engagement programs and helping the university apply for the Carnegie Elective Classification in Community Engagement. The extensive universitywide effort paid off two years later when UNLV succeeded in getting the designation. Since then, his office's work has continued to expand and he works with UNLV's Community Engagement Council to reach deeper into the community.
What do your duties entail?
My responsibilities now include a diverse range of co-curricular (outside of the classroom) leadership development, volunteerism, community engagement opportunities, voter engagement, and scholar programs. I also provide oversight of service-learning practice across the UNLV curriculum, which essentially means integrating meaningful community partnerships into courses in a way that advances student learning and the needs of the community.
What changes have you seen on campus since coming here?
The investment and focus on community engagement in that time has been significant. One of UNLV’s strengths, I think, is the fact that its strategic plan — called the Top Tier Initiative — has been sustained for some time now throughout the tenure of a number of presidents, and community engagement has always been one of the focus areas. In my experience, neither of these things (community engagement as a focus area, nor a strategic plan being sustained across changes of leadership) are necessarily guaranteed in higher education. The fact that they have been here at UNLV, though, has helped build a sustained investment and focus on this work that is paying dividends today.
How long have you lived in Southern Nevada?
I came here for this job, so about four years. My family and I really enjoy it here, especially hiking at Mt. Charleston and Red Rock Canyon in the cooler months.
How has your office's work impacted both the campus community and those served by your partner organizations?
Something like the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement may seem like a simple feather in the cap for the university, but it actually has very real implications for increasing our community engagement as an institution. Service-learning courses and service hours are now foundational annual metrics used for both the university’s strategic planning and accreditation processes. This, coupled with the fact that in order to keep the Carnegie designation we must reapply every few years, means that we’re continually driving this work forward and expanding it into new areas.
All of this work is rooted in improving both student learning and development as well as the services and impact we have in the broader community. Approximately 7,000 UNLV students take at least one service-learning course every year. This is something that I am very proud of.
We try to create many diverse opportunities for students to learn in the community outside of the classroom as well. This includes events like Service Days, which bring together several hundred UNLV students, staff, and faculty to volunteer with a dozen different nonprofit partners on a Friday each semester. We also support a student-led group called UNLVolunteers and the Alternative Breaks program where UNLV students and staff partner to facilitate intensive, week-long service trips in our surrounding region. Each Alt Break is unique and takes a deep dive into a particular social issue, such as homelessness, immigration, food deserts (communities that don’t have regular access to fresh produce and healthy food options), and environmental sustainability.
One of the more prominent programs that we coordinate is the Engelstad Scholars program, which this year will have 112 incredible scholars who each commit to at least 100 hours of community service every year through long-term, multi-year placements with about 25 community nonprofit partners throughout the valley. This program alone generates more than 100,000 hours of service in our community that enhance the capacity of our nonprofit partners, and just as importantly more than 100,000 hours of hands-on learning for our students.
What are some of the challenges that UNLV students face?
Another area that my office has been very active in is supporting students experiencing housing and food insecurity. Unfortunately, this is a reality for many college students, not just in southern Nevada. A national study of more than 38,000 students found that nearly three in five college students were experiencing basic needs insecurity during the pandemic, while 38% experienced food insecurity and 15% experienced homelessness as a result of COVID while at a four-year institution like UNLV.
These are staggering and deeply concerning numbers. We coordinate the UNLV HOPE Scholars program, which was designed to support unaccompanied homeless youth from Clark County who are entering UNLV with 12-month housing, meal plans, advising, and other support systems. The program, established in 2016, has built a track record of graduating students at rates that exceed UNLV’s own averages.
This year, with the generous support of a grant from United Way of Southern Nevada, we are expanding the eligibility criteria to any student experiencing homelessness. We also have a suite of on-campus resources and community partnerships ready to support students experiencing housing insecurity. We’re launching a new basic needs pantry to help students secure things like bedding, toiletries, personal hygiene products, and clothes. And we work closely with the exceptional UNLV Food Pantry run by the School of Integrated Health Sciences. We also partner with Rebel Recycling to manage the UNLV Community Garden, where students can secure a shared plot and learn to grow their own healthy food.
This work is continually expanding. This fall, with the support of a grant from the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, we’re launching a new Fostering Scholars program with a dedicated full-time coordinator for students who experienced foster care since we know that many of these students typically have fewer resources and less of a support system, which is essential for persistence and completion of their degrees.
What does “community” mean to you?
To me, community is both a fact of life as well as something that we’re continually striving for. We all already exist and operate within multiple communities. The question is, are we satisfied with the state of our communities? Recognizing our place within multiple communities also brings with it a responsibility to those communities. None of us have the capacity to address every need, but how can we each be doing our part? How should we be showing up?
What makes a great community?
For me, it comes down to compassion, care, and engagement. We’re all living extremely busy lives, but how can we each be investing in the health and wellbeing of our communities, of our peers and neighbors, of those with fewer resources, and of those with whom we might disagree but nonetheless are as much of the fabric of the community as ourselves? This is the root of the work I love engaging in with students. The answers aren’t always clear, but the questions are always worth continually asking.
What do you find personally rewarding about working in the community?
I’m a leadership educator first and foremost in my career and by training. But that’s not an abstract thing — it is highly applied and requires addressing needs in the community.
In the research and literature on leadership, a distinction is often made between command, management, and leadership where crises (e.g., a fire) require command and immediate action, processes that have been encountered before — even highly complex ones like engineering or running a school — require management, and complex challenges that are constantly evolving require leadership … grand challenges like climate change, racial and social justice, economic inequality. Those are the domain of leadership, and they require a continuous learning orientation, a comfort with ambiguity, and an iterative response where you’re constantly striving for improvement but rarely come across a definitive solution.
These kinds of complex challenges are the challenges felt every day in our communities. Such leadership requires asking the right questions, and convening the right resources and people. It is a very different style than what most people think of when asked about leadership, which tends to be a highly charismatic command-and-control approach.
To address the complex challenges we face here in Southern Nevada and beyond, we require shared, distributed leadership at multiple levels. These problems are so complex that one organization (let alone one person) cannot hope to have access to all of the information and resources that are necessary to respond effectively to them. This is why I love what I do, because we work with students from every major on campus. No matter where their life and career take them, we need more people in every sector and in every role to have these skills.
What can UNLV do to improve our community in general? And our neighborhood?
First off, I think the relationship can be mutually beneficial. It is not just about how UNLV can improve our community, as important as that goal is. Both ‘parties’ have resources, expertise, and goals to align. And neither is monolithic. Sometimes it will make sense for broad partnerships, sometimes for much more focused ones.
We know that community engagement has repeatedly been found to be a “high impact” educational practice, something that significantly enhances student learning. We also know that dialogue about and across differences is one of the most important developmental experiences in leadership learning. As UNLV continues to prioritize enhancing the ways that the university can assist the community, it is important to recognize the very real benefit that the university (e.g., its students) gets from the relationship as well. The same logic is amplified even further with the neighborhood around the main campus. It seems to me that both benefit with thoughtful and meaningful engagement in each direction.
If you could wave a magic wand and fix one community issue, what would it be?
I’m going to cheat and offer two: climate change for a global challenge that is impacting our local community (Las Vegas is one of the fastest warming urban areas in the U.S.), and homelessness for a more localized challenge (though it is, of course, shared in many places). The truth, of course, is that these two challenges are increasingly interconnected — those with the fewest resources are the ones who are most significantly impacted by the effects of climate change.
During your work in the community, was there a specific moment that inspired you?
Beyond the work I’ve described above, I serve on several boards in the community including the Alliance for Nevada Nonprofits, the Nevada CARE Coalition, and Compassionate Las Vegas. These organizations and the people I meet through them continue to inspire me. Las Vegas is a world-class entertainment destination, but it is also so much more than its public image. I’m thrilled to be working with incredible people dedicated to making our community a better place every day.
Read the full interview with Rian Satterwhite.