Last semester, Daniela Clements, a first-year nursing major, had an English 101 class that went far beyond writing essays.
She was required to complete 8 hours of community engagement with the class’s partner, Nativity Academy at Saint Boniface, a Catholic middle school in Louisville’s Nulu neighborhood serving low-income students. She observed classes, shared her academic experiences with students and volunteered for a family event. Her class assignments were tied to those hands-on experiences, too, as she was asked to think critically about the socio-economic factors that influence Nativity’s work, journal her observations and write a research paper.
Clements said that volunteering was intimidating at first, but she came to appreciate the opportunity to learn about the school and make connections.
“I got to see how close all of the teachers, staff and students were,” Daniela said. “I cannot put into words the amount of care and compassion this school has for their students.”
Classes, like Dr. Wieland’s, which integrate community engagement into their lesson plans have increased at Bellarmine since the university launched its Center for Community Engagement in 2020. The center offers centralized support to faculty developing mutually beneficial community partnerships and community engagement opportunities.
“The purpose of our office is to help actualize the Bellarmine vision to ‘forge new and mutually beneficial partnership and provide a distinctive and transformative student experience,’” said Dr. Elizabeth Todd Byron, the center’s director. “To truly institutionalize community engagement, we make sure that it is a part of both the curricular and co-curricular areas of the university. At Bellarmine, we have a history of community engagement and campus members who believe in the work, so our office is here to support, highlight and expand the good work being done.”
The center consults with faculty members who are interested in integrating community engagement or community topics into a course they already instruct or would like to propose.
The center also partnered with the Faculty Development Center to host a Community of Practice on Community Engagement. Co-chaired by two faculty members, the Community of Practice meets monthly for a lunch and learn. Every other month, community partners join for a meal and open dialogue on community needs and mutually beneficial practices.
“Through our Community of Practice, Bellarmine faculty share current curricular work with community, build interdisciplinary and collaborative efforts across the university and expand partnerships with local nonprofit organizations,” Byron said.
The center has also developed a guide that outlines resources available for faculty as they develop such opportunities for their students.
Numerous courses have featured community engagement with the center’s help, including eight in the Fall of 2022. For example, Dr. Martha Carlson Mazur’s Environmental Science course partnered with Catholic Charities’ Common Earth Gardens and Dr. Gabri Warren’s Community Nursing course collaborated with Seven Counties Services, a system of mental health and addiction recovery facilities. This semester, Dr. Courtney Keim’s Organizational Behavior and Leadership course is working with Metro Louisville’s Department of Economic Development.
To develop his English class, Dr. Wieland approached the center and Dr. Byron explained that Bellarmine had a historic relationship with Nativity. They visited the school where they worked on the details of the partnership with school administrators.
“Liz was fabulous to work with and provided support every step of the way,” Wieland said.
He said the goal was for students to reflect after each hour of community engagement and consider how broader systemic and structural forces influence Nativity. The experience gave the students real world experiences, issues, topics and themes to consider and write about.
He said his students all responded well to the partnership.
“In reviewing the experience at the end of the course, my students reported a high level of satisfaction and didn’t suggest any major changes to our format,” he said.
Erik L. Benvie, a student studying Design, Arts and Technology with an Art focus, said the class helped him understand how financial struggles can impact students’ lives.
“There is one big thing I would like to share about the experience: it opened my eyes to just how great those kids are,” Erik said.
Teachers at Nativity were impressed with Bellarmine students as well, saying they’d love to host more in the future.
“The Nativity counselor reported that some of the Bellarmine students went above the expectations for engagement and did a fantastic job of connecting with Nativity students,” Wieland said. “She hoped that some of the students would continue to volunteer during their time at Bellarmine.”
Photo caption: Members of Metro Louisville’s Department of Economic Development visited Dr. Courtney Keim’s Organizational Behavior and Leadership course this January to kick off their partnership.