COVID Restrictions Did Not End Community Engagement for These Faculty Members

Headshots From left, Kirsten Gelsdorf, Victor Luftig, John Holbein, Talitha LeFlouria and Kate Stephenson

From left, Kirsten Gelsdorf, Victor Luftig, John Holbein, Talitha LeFlouria and Kate Stephenson won this year’s Faculty Public Service Awards.

Five University of Virginia faculty members recently received 2020-21 Public Service Awards for their dedication to work that enhances student experiences and communities nearby and across the world. All found ways to make adjustments during the pandemic, some of which they’re choosing to continue along with resuming in-person activities soon.

Sponsored by UVA’s Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, the Public Service Awards recognize faculty members’ commitment to service and to sustaining community partnerships. The winning efforts involve students who’ve worked on the various projects.

Due to COVID, this is the second year an in-person event to recognize the winners has been cancelled.

“This particular class of awardees demonstrates how far-reaching and varied community-engaged scholarship can be,” said Louis Nelson, vice provost for academic outreach. “By building relationships in our communities and with community partners who are integral to the investigative and teaching process, these faculty make real, positive impact.” 

2020-21 Public Service Award Recipients

Excellence in Public Interest Research: Kirsten Gelsdorf, professor of practice, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Gelsdorf leads applied research and policy development projects for organizations such as the American Red Cross, United Nations and Save the Children International. She also finds projects and ways to use her global research and expertise in Charlottesville, extending these opportunities to students.

“The kinds of community-impact research and engagements projects I have been involved in have ranged from large-scale meta-evaluations and systematic reviews to small-scale, joint research projects with civil society [non-governmental organizations],” Gelsdorf wrote in a reflective statement. “Each project rests on invaluable support and work from different incredible faculty, student and community collaborators.”

Excellence in Public Service: Talitha LeFlouria, professor of African American and African studies, Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies. She taught an online community-engaged course on Black women and mass incarceration – the focus of her research – and enabled her students to work with nonprofit reentry organizations and prison reform advocates.

“I have made an effort to build a bridge between UVA and a growing community of formerly incarcerated women in Charlottesville and across the nation,” LeFlouria wrote. “I believe it is important to offer community-engaged, justice-oriented education to University students. As future leaders, I believe it is imperative that students directly engage with diverse communities.”

Excellence in Public Service: Victor Luftig, English professor and co-director of the Center for the Liberal Arts. He created collaborative projects with the Southern Poverty Law Center for K-12 teachers, “Teaching Tolerance” and “Teaching Hard Literature,” on how to teach literary texts from under-represented authors.

We can do this. Keep going, UVA.

“I have experienced no divide between what I do under the heading of ‘outreach’ and what I do in the rest of my work,” Luftig wrote in describing the latest Center for Liberal Arts initiatives he has spearheaded. “The inseparability of research from teaching and public service is well illustrated by the [Center for Liberal Arts] project that has the greatest part of my time and enthusiasm these days: ‘Teaching Hard Literature.’ … We think ‘Teaching Hard Literature’ will be used by thousands of teachers nationwide (and abroad), making it one of many ways the public will benefit from the knowledge of the participating faculty and the students alongside whom they work.”

Excellence in Public Service: Kate Stephenson, assistant professor of English, Writing and Rhetoric Program. Stephenson piloted first-year writing courses involving community engagement, in local food and housing issues, for the English department’s Writing and Rhetoric Program, securing a Jefferson Trust grant for “The Engaged Writing Project.”

Stephenson wrote that her “role as professor is to show students the power of their words (and the power of their words when informed and created with members of the community or with real knowledge of the community) in ‘real life.’ I want to help them move their writing from a closed student/professor relationship to a public platform. I want to give students the opportunity to use writing to create change.”

Jefferson Trust Award for Early Career Excellence in Community Engagement: John Holbein, assistant professor of public policy, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Holbein studies the gap between young people’s interest in politics and their presence at the ballot box; the U.S. has some of the lowest youth turnout rates in the world. His recent book, “Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes Into Civic Action,” has been heralded as a potentially paradigm-shifting book.

“Rather than being satisfied with simply publishing research on this topic in academic outlets,” Holbein wrote in his reflective statement, “I have made several efforts to help translate the lessons I have learned in my research to the public and to a policymaking audience. … In all of my research I seek to engage in a way that helps improve our democracy and our society more generally.

Advice and Observations on Public Service

One indication of the significance of their public service is the coverage each of these faculty members and their work has received in external media or in UVA Today – see the links on their names above. We asked the recipients for their observations and for some advice about succeeding under difficult circumstances and in trying times.

Q. What advice would you give to colleagues about making the best of virtual community engagement?

Holbein: I’ve found a lot of success in building semi-structured, but still classroom-related, interactions with my students. During the 2020 elections, for example, we had a debate watch party, which the students loved. I think many students crave these types of events or gatherings that happen naturally when we are in-person, but require some thoughtful planning when we are not in person.

LeFlouria: I would advise colleagues to experiment with new models of virtual community engagement. I would also encourage them to take advantage of the opportunity to connect with organizations, partners and audiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to in person. 

Gelsdorf: To find the bright spots. This year has been incredibly challenging in terms of pivoting research and programming to try and find ways to contribute to also supporting the unexpected COVID-related needs of an already vulnerable population caught in various humanitarian crises around the world.

However, these challenges also forced us to not only work, but also ‘think’ in new ways. For example, we had to step out of our silos of addressing only one challenge and instead try more multidimensional programming, making sure to constantly think of all the needs – education, health, socio-economic, information, displacement, etc. We also had to form new kinds of relationships with different global actors, bringing more diverse expertise into our projects. Finally, the virtual environment also allowed us to have larger forums to be able to disseminate findings and discuss and debate results and policy developments.

“We’ll want to preserve some virtual component for our in-person activities going forward – now that we have had this experience, there seems no going back.”

- Victor Luftig

Stephenson: In the virtual environment, I found myself leaving space during class – sometimes just a few minutes, and sometimes as much as 10 or 15 – to check in with students, not just about the class, but also about their lives. Often, I’d give them a verbal prompt like, “Share something new you’ve learned to do during COVID” or, “Tell us something you’re looking forward to when ‘normal life’ resumes.” Other times, I’d give them time to write about their experiences and feelings; often we would share those responses, but students always have the ability to pass. I also shared my own highs and lows. These moments helped us connect, feel a little more human, offer each other advice, and just sympathize with one another at times.

Q. How best did you keep students, teachers or participants involved?

LeFlouria: By establishing clear goals and priorities for the Black Women and Mass Incarceration Service-Learning Internship Project, and by making sure to maintain great communication with our partners. More importantly, I utilized a collaborative approach to teaching to foster a sense of community among the students before they started their internships. This increased their motivation to work with one another, and our community partners, to support reentry efforts for women in Virginia and across the nation. 

Holbein: We use a team-based learning approach in my “Politics of Public Policy” class. At the beginning of the semester, students are assigned to teams that they’ll work with during the rest of the year. Then, throughout the year, they work on solving applied problems in class. These range from researching the key stakeholders in a policy area, learning about the interest groups that shape the policy process, or thinking like a candidate for political office.

Stephenson: We used a lot of breakout rooms, which the students seemed to enjoy. I always set up a clear activity that included a task to bring back to the whole group. This gave me a chance to work with smaller groups as well.

“My role as professor is to show students the power of their words – and the power of their words when informed and created with members of the community or with real knowledge of the community – in “real life.””

- Kate Stephenson
assistant professor of English


I held in-person office hours in a tent every week. This was a great way to meet students face-to-face safely.

Gelsdorf: Thanks to the support of Batten, given the challenges many students faced with internships, we were also able to hire many more students to work on various research and engagement projects, which has resulted in longer-term relationships for them with the work.

Q. Do you have any plans or changes coming to do any in-person activities?

Luftig: A big part of our professional development programs for K-12 teachers has been bringing them face-to-face with UVA faculty, as colleagues and collaborators; the shift to virtual formats has cost us some of that sense of connection, and we look forward to restoring it. 

But that loss has been greatly offset by the new geographic range of our participants: for instance, whereas the 100 teachers who’d attended two earlier annual March programs on teaching about race had come from five states – essentially from the mid-Atlantic – the 120 who joined us this March were from 22 states, and that geographical range added some potent particulars: for instance, the Alaska teacher who described challenges to place-based learning because of the absence of accessible, preserved sites associated with the histories of Indigenous peoples. 

“We also had to form new kinds of relationships with different global actors, bringing more diverse expertise into our projects.”

- Kirsten Gelsdorf

We’ll want to preserve some virtual component for our in-person activities going forward – now that we have had this experience, there seems no going back.

Q. What has been the biggest surprise?

Luftig: The biggest surprise has been teachers’ stamina. I thought that Zoom would require shorter programs, more breaks, perhaps less intensity. The same K-12 teachers who were carrying massive burdens during the week came to our weekend online programs with wonderful energy, ready to learn and share. Like every other situation I’ve confronted in working on these programs over 20 years, the pandemic has left me in awe of our K-12 peers.

Stephenson: I’m just amazed by the dedication, creativity and resilience of our students. There were often times when students were attending class from a car, a hotel room if they were in quarantine, had just moved into isolation, were worrying about a roommate, or were still at home. Despite all these difficulties, they showed up to class willing to learn, work hard and participate.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

Office of University Communications