ACE Courses Provide an Outlet -- and Funds -- to Move Teaching and Research into the Community

November 12, 2009 — A dozen new courses being offered this year at the University of Virginia are designed to foster public service and engaged research among students and faculty.

Funded with grants from the Office of University Community Partnerships, they represent part of a larger push to bring U.Va. into the ranks of major American institutions with programs that merge scholarship and action for the public good – locally, nationally and internationally, said Megan Raymond, director of the community partnerships office.

Now in their third year, the Academic Community Engagement, or ACE, awards have supported faculty and course assistants with grants of up to $9,000.

In addition, U.Va.'s Teaching Resource Center offers support to ACE applicants and recipients to promote student learning. The center's help includes course design workshops, troubleshooting sessions and individual consultations on the challenges unique to crafting and teaching such courses.

A number of the courses benefiting from these awards are really extensions of projects that faculty have been nursing for years, often with limited resources.

"Many of the faculty who are doing this, they've been in it for the long haul," Raymond said. "Others who are drawn to engaged scholarship are coming out of the woodwork. They're finally finding the resources to do what they've wanted to do."

Edith "Winx" Lawrence, a nationally recognized clinical psychologist in U.Va.'s Curry School of Education, used ACE funds to expand a research-driven mentoring program for girls in their early teens, which she helped found in 1997.

The Young Women Leaders Program pairs undergraduate women with local middle-school girls, combining one-on-one mentoring with group activities that foster empowerment and academic achievement.

Over the years, Lawrence's research taught her that to succeed where other mentoring programs failed, she needed to more rigorously teach the college students how to be effective mentors.

"We realized we needed a course that gave them a better understanding of what it meant to be a mentor," Lawrence said.

The first ACE funding she received, in 2007, helped her secure two more grants – for half a million dollars each. That money, from the U.S. Department of Education and the William T. Grant Foundation, will fund the program for many years to come.

This fall, Lawrence is using a supplemental ACE award to tweak her mentoring course, adding graduate and undergraduate students to work as group facilitators.

"I'm a strong believer in integrating academics and service," she said. "But you really have to have the support to make it work."

One ACE-funded project began a few years ago with the recovery of four boxes full of dusty records from the Albemarle-Charlottesville Historical Society. Now, it is growing into a community partnership that brings together public housing residents, local activists and city planning officials.

Scot French and Bill Ferster, faculty at the Virginia Center for Digital History, are having students build a project documenting the story of Vinegar Hill, a predominantly black neighborhood in downtown Charlottesville that was razed in the 1960s in a controversial redevelopment effort. Many residents were forced into the Westhaven public housing project nearby.

The boxes French found at the local historical society contained valuable data, largely property appraisals, that seemed to challenge official narratives of Vinegar Hill as a blighted area. His students have helped analyze and map those records, together with photos and oral histories. Their work is being stored in an online, interactive archive
that Ferster has been designing for wider use.

Now, with help from an ACE-funded course assistant, French and Ferster are having students consider ways this history could be brought to life and expanded with involvement from those who were affected. Students in the course will help design a mentoring project that matches undergraduates with young people living in Westhaven.

High schoolers recruited for the program will contribute to the history of Vinegar Hill and engage directly in current debates over how to redevelop their neighborhood.

"In this way, our civic engagement links the present to the past in a very conscious way," French said.

For the U.Va. students involved, the experience is about more than community service. It asks them to think about the real-world implications of their scholarship and how to act on it responsibly.

And that, Raymond said, is exactly the point of academic community engagement.

"There's decades of research in this field to show that it's worthwhile," she said. "This is not about giving credit for service." Instead, she said, it's about connecting teaching and scholarship to the larger community.

— Roberto I. Armengol