Community Engaged Learning Courses

A Unique Opportunity for CNU Students and Faculty


Photo from Unsplash

CNU recently received a $15,000 Community Engaged Learning (CEL)  Initiative Grant from the National Bonner Foundation. The National Bonner Foundation partners with over 70 different colleges and universities to promote civic engagement and encourage community service efforts. 

This will be the second time in a row that CNU has received the CEL grant, the first time being for the 2021-2022 academic year. The grant will be used for CNU’s Tidewater Faculty Fellows Program. Faculty who participate in the program integrate the elements of CEL into one of their courses and offer the opportunity for students to work closely with a community partner from the Newport News area. Three of these courses ran in the Fall 2022 semester and five are currently being taught in the Spring 2023 semester. 

The Captain’s Log interviewed Dr. Brooke Covington and Vanessa Buehlman, who created and developed the Faculty Fellows Program. Buehlman has been at CNU for 10 years and is the Director of the Center for Community Engagement and the Bonner Service Scholars Program. Covington is in her third year at CNU and is the Academic Director of the Center for Community Engagement. Covington also directs the minor in civic engagement and social justice, as well as the Ferguson Fellowships for Community Engagement. 

When asked how she would define CEL, Covington emphasized the importance of the courses’ focus on mutual benefit or reciprocity, “Community Engaged Learning is really an effort to bridge the university and the community in meaningful learning opportunities.

She described the relationship between community partners and students as a “respectful partnership.”

“I’ve been trying to emphasize both with the fellows and with my own students, that when we’re doing community engaged work, we’re not doing work for community partners, we’re doing work with them. We’re doing work alongside them,” Convington said. 

While CEL courses have been available at CNU in previous years, this is the first time that training and other support have been offered to participating faculty. This support includes learning workshops, monthly dialogue sessions and a $2000 stipend to support extra work that professors will have to do outside of the normal academic schedule. Buehlman and Covington also facilitated community partner networking events where faculty could meet with a variety of local community partners. Buehlman noted that the Center for Community Engagement has fostered relationships with more than 100 local non-profits, thus many groups showed enthusiasm towards community partnerships. 

Currently, eight faculty members are a part of the Tidewater Faculty Program. Each has to apply, but they have full creative freedom in who they partner with and how they shape their course. Applications for the next year’s faculty’s cohorts open on April 3. 

Covington and Buehlman explained that faculty training focused on taking a different approach to community service, shifting away from an emphasis on logging hours and more towards values. 

Buehlman said, “Beyond the traditional idea of service learning that people think of… We definitely want to get away from that and into this community engaged learning, the reciprocal relationship.”

“Changing a mindset from numbers, quantifiable numbers, to more qualitative things, like values… that’s changing a culture, changing a mindset,” said Covington

Dr. Jessica Kelly, who is currently teaching a special topics course in mathematics, has partnered her students with the Newport News Fire Department where they will conduct research on relevant issues. 

Kelly described the most rewarding aspect of her CEL course, “Once the groundwork is set, it is rewarding to see the students take ownership of the projects.  They become the experts! As the projects continue and groups make progress on answering the questions posed in the project proposal, it is exciting to hear the confidence of the students grow.”

Dr. George Kuster partnered with Yorktown Elementary school for his HONR 100 course to create a math mentoring program. 

 “The real crucial part to this is the resources and support provided by the community partner, without those resources it’s just service learning. Community engaged learning changes the whole dynamic, I wish I could make all of my classes like this,” said Kuster.

As for students who may feel hesitant to sign up for a CEL course, Buehlman said,  “Growth happens exponentially in those areas of discomfort. So those that may worry about getting off campus, they will gain so much experience from doing that and will learn in a way that just cannot be done in the classroom.” 

Junior marketing and management major, Matthew Birken, took ENGL 353 with Dr. April Cobos last semester. In Cobos’ course students worked with the DeGood Foundation on marketing and outreach programs.  

Birken said, “The most interesting part was learning how to market for a non-for profit, and learning more about social media marketing, which is what I want to do when I graduate. So this project had a lot of real world application, which got me even more excited about my future.”

Another CNU student,  senior management major Will Yaglou said, “It has been one of my most rewarding classes at CNU. I feel like I am doing real world work, and that it actually makes a difference other than a grade in my grade book.”

Yaglou is taking BUSN 442 with Dr. William Donaldson where students partner with the Peninsula SPCA.