Community Engagement Program Builds on University’s Legacy
Lending a helping hand. It is a simple act, yet one that involves a wide range of human capacities and emotions. But every selfless act of giving also carries with it a learning experience.
That mutually beneficial endeavor makes up the essence of the core value that is the foundation of the University of La Verne mission statement. Community engagement goes beyond just volunteerism; it involves a complex relationship, or partnership, that makes sure both sides are active, involved and meeting each other’s needs.
This academic year the university has implemented the initial phase of The La Verne Experience, an initiative that draws upon more than 120 years of traditions established by an involved campus community. On August 25, first-year students, faculty and staff came together in a group of more than 600 for the inaugural Freshman Learning Experience (FLEX) Community Engagement Day.
“We use the idea of community engagement rather than community service because “service” implies we are going in and helping someone or some agency. Engagement gets at the idea that we are seeking to build mutual partnerships where we are helping meet certain needs and that the partner has a say in what those needs are,” said University Chaplain Zandra Wagoner. “The idea is our students are learning from the experience just as much as the group or agency is learning from us. It’s a two-way benefit.”
While the terminology and phrasing may be different, community engagement is not a new concept at La Verne. It is a part of a legacy that can be traced back to the members of the Church of the Brethren that founded the school. And while the university has not been directly affiliated with the Church of the Brethren for many years, the legacy of those earlier times remain.
“Because of the Brethren influence, the University of La Verne has always attracted people to work here who revere the mission statement. In many cases, they are people who make certain sacrifices to remain at La Verne because they care deeply for the mission statement, the core values, and about imparting them to the next generation of students,” said College of Arts & Sciences Dean Jonathan Reed. “It’s about helping our students live a full life, a life of civic and community engagement.”
All of this is not sprung on students as they begin their studies at La Verne. It has become a main point of interest for many of the students who choose to attend La Verne. Today’s generation has more than a passing interest in making a difference. They come seeking a chance to get involved.
“Even in the past 10 years I see a growing consciousness from out students. During the summer they want to spend some of their time doing something positive. It’s not just about having fun and making money. They have a desire to do more,” said Wagoner. “There is an expectation from our young people that the businesses and organizations they go to work for are contributing back to society.”
Day-long service events are just one way for La Verne students to be involved. The La Verne Experience calls for community engagement to be woven into the academic curriculum, lessons that help expand the learning and leadership of every student.
Engagement partnerships cover a wide assortment of social assistance opportunities and educational experiences: beach clean-up efforts, working with food banks, assisting with building projects involving Habitat for Humanity, creating and maintaining community gardens, environmental efforts involving regional conservancy organizations.
The College of Education & Organizational Leadership’s Literacy Center continues to help K-12 students and their parents. The Enactus (formerly known as Students in Free Enterprise, or SIFE) Team, made up of students from the College of Business & Public Management, has held food drives and worked on hunger eradication projects. The Psychology Department’s Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D) Program continues its involvement with local schools on anti-bullying efforts.
The university’s classified and administrational/professional staff, during their annual picnic, created blankets which were donated to the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. Wagoner expects that relationship to grow and become a vital partnership in the years ahead.
The engagement reaches beyond the main campus. The College of Law in Ontario holds its own community engagement day the first week of classes each fall, and it has a ground-breaking partnership with the Peace Corps that established the first Fellows/USA partnership in the nation to exclusively offer a law degree.
At the San Fernando Valley Regional Campus in Burbank, Professor Forrest Boyd’s business collaborated on a project involving Catholic Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, creating a plan that will allow those organizations to share their strengths while effectively continuing to do their community efforts.
“This is really important because it engages the students so that they not only connect with the academic material, the big challenge is then how do you make this work in the big world,” said Professor Boyd.
Community engagement comes down to an educational and a transformational experience for La Verne students. The idea is to build character, instill confidence, create leaders and provide the information and learning needed to sustain it for a lifetime.
“The classroom at La Verne – and at the best universities – is a chance to explore questions of ultimate meaning and relevance for life. Just as community engagement needs to be rooted in the classroom, I think the classroom needs to have firm connections with the community and the world in which we live. And the key word there is relevance.”
Making sure the La Verne Experience, and La Verne’s legacy, remains pertinent to today’s students as well as today’s society.
“I see it as continuing the legacy,” said Wagoner. “It’s about making those efforts more relevant for this segment of the 21st Century.”