Helen Keller’s famous quote, “Alone we can do so little: together we can do so much,” would be an apt motto for UNLV’s office of community engagement.
Established in the summer of 2016, the office was created to support, facilitate, and promote collaboration, partnership, and engagement between the university and its many constituent groups.
Longtime employee and alum Sue DiBella, ’81 BA and ’88 MA Communication Studies, was tapped to serve as interim executive director. Her previous positions, including in the Division of Research and Economic Development and in the media relations office, have kept her tuned into community issues and the many UNLV programs and resources that can help address them.
As the office, which has a staff of two (NSHE specialist Tamara Marino joined in September), approaches its first anniversary, DiBella discussed the plans for the future.
Tell us about the creation of your office.
The university leadership possesses a very real commitment to partnership and engagement with the community. Identifying community partnership as one of the five institutional goals through the Top Tier strategic planning process demonstrates this.
Tell us about some of the things you've done since the office was established.
Meeting with members of key sectors in the community has been very important. I've met with more than 230 individuals and organizations from our community since July and still have many people to see. We want to let the community know who and where we are and what we do.
Sometimes we help community members navigate the campus community, as it can seem like a small city to many newcomers. Sometimes we help promote and translate the work that's being done here. Sometimes we are matchmakers, working to facilitate new partnerships. Whatever the need is, we're here to help.
Almost immediately after starting the office, we conducted strategic planning for community engagement, identifying seven community engagement goals (and associated strategies, measurable outcomes, assigned leads, etc.). Along with my co-chair, John Osborn, who is assistant dean of the Lee Business School, I lead working groups that are associated with three of the community engagement goals.
We also spend time developing infrastructure around community engagement. For instance, one effort is data gathering. Virtually every department, unit, and group on campus is involved in community engagement in some way, but there is no centralized source of data on this. So one of our jobs is to develop systematic ways to track this activity.
We worked with the Cannon Survey Center to conduct a survey of faculty and staff about their community engagement activity and partners. We are also working with the provost's office to embed these survey questions into Digital Measures, so that the data are collected on an ongoing basis. Now, we are following up with a survey of our community partners as well to learn about their perceptions of UNLV and its interactions beyond the borders of our campus.
Tell us about the Community Engagement Awards.
The inaugural awards were presented in April. They recognize campus individuals for their exceptional community engagement in the areas of service learning, community-based research, administrative faculty/staff support of community engagement activity, and student service.
What are some of your other initiatives?
We are working closely with the office of student engagement and diversity, the unit that manages service learning courses on an institutional level, to help generate awareness of their services and to encourage more faculty to utilize them with the goal increasing the number of service-learning courses offered.
We are also active on social media promoting community engagement-oriented activities, events, programs, and research. You can also find us online.
I'm also a member of the 2017 cohort in the Jameson Fellowship program, which is dedicated to creating a culture of greater collaboration and cohesion among nonprofit leaders in Southern Nevada. This has provided me with a wonderful opportunity to network with the nonprofit community here.
What are some examples of partnerships you’ve helped facilitate so far?
We have several promising partnerships that are in the early discussion stages.
The leadership of Junior Achievement of Southern Nevada (JA), for example, approached our office about establishing a more systematic, organized mechanism for volunteering by UNLV faculty, staff, and students. Previously, various organizations or student groups had volunteered for JA, but this occurred based on the interest of participants and wasn’t necessarily ongoing.
So we met to discuss options and then observed one of their programs in progress, “JA in a Day” out at Kit Carson Elementary School. Then, we arranged for JA leaders to meet with representatives from our Lee Business School and the College of Education. So now they are exploring more strategic partnership scenarios, including inviting some faculty members to discuss the possibility of a service learning course associated with JA.
Another promising example came from a conversation with Cheryl Adler Davis, who leads the Clark County School District family and community engagement services program. We were discussing some of her challenges associated with getting families help in filling out the FAFSA form to apply for financial aid. She mentioned that her office has a bus with computer facilities, and we thought it would be fantastic if we could bring some UNLV expertise out to the high schools on their bus to offer help to these families on site.
It turns out that UNLV’s Center for Academic Enrichment and Outreach (CAEO) does this type of training regularly, and Keith Rogers and Cheryl are in discussion now about how they might partner to offer a workshop or other event at some of the high schools to help parents/high school students prepare the FAFSA form.
We also regularly facilitate discussions with businesses and other organizations that are interested in hiring interns, offering guest lectures, establishing mentoring relationships, and partnering on research and/or grant proposals.
What are your goals for the office for the next year?
We will begin working more intensely on preparing the university's application for the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement. This is an accreditation-like process that requires us to demonstrate our commitment to community engagement on a number of levels. Like accreditation, this process will involve a large team of individuals from across campus. Our office will be the coordinating unit.
What are your long-term goals?
- To continue serving as a resource to our community. We try to help people better navigate the campus, make connections, and form solid partnerships.
- To help translate and promote the good work of UNLV. Some of our activities and values — research, for instance — are not always completely understood by the community at large, so we share the mission and key messages of the campus and of our office. People in the community are incredibly supportive of UNLV, and even more so when they learn more about us. For instance, one of my key messages is that there is an incredible pool of individuals with expertise in a vast number of subjects here. I encourage our prospective partners to consider how this expertise could be utilized by their organizations for the betterment of our community.
- To build infrastructure, guidance, and resources that help UNLV faculty, staff, and students partner effectively with the community. We are working to build a strong foundation for community engagement in the future.