“Colleges and universities are one of the greatest hopes for intellectual and civic progress… I am convinced that for this hope to be fulfilled, the academy must become a more vigorous partner in the search for answers to our most pressing social, civic, economic and moral problems, and must reaffirm its historic commitment to what I call the scholarship of engagement.”―Ernest Boyer in “The Scholarship of Engagement" (1996)
The preceding statement from the late Ernest Boyer—noted scholar and education leader—was published posthumously more than 20 years ago as a call to action in higher education. As defined by the Carnegie Foundation, “community engagement describes collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.” The major signal of a college or a university’s commitment to this vision is receiving the Foundation’s prestigious Community Engagement Classification.
The University of North Georgia (UNG)―a regional, multi-campus higher education institution with a mission focused on academic excellence in a student-focused environment―has and maintains the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification. In fact, a focus on community engagement has quickly become the calling card of UNG’s newest campus in Blue Ridge, Georgia.
Opened in 2015, the campus is designed to serve the postsecondary education needs of the Appalachian region through high-quality public higher education. Community engagement is exemplified by one of the campus’ flagship initiatives―the Blue Ridge Scholars (BRS).
Designed to meet the particular needs of students in the mountains of rural Georgia, many of whom are first-generation college students, the BRS is an innovative pilot program aimed at ensuring that entering freshmen have the tools necessary to be successful in college. The BRS combines three high-impact educational practices:
- Develop a structured first-year experience,
- Create a supported learning community, and
- Provide an academic service learning component.
Students selected for the BRS take their first year courses together (four classes per semester, with the option to take a fifth class outside of the BRS cohort if interested) to fulfill their general education requirements: English Composition I and II, College Algebra, Elementary Statistics, American Government, Introduction to Psychology, Contemporary Global Topics, and Ethics from a Global Perspective. Leadership Development is another major focus of the program, so students are also required to participate in a weekly non-credit seminar to learn about different leadership approaches and how to work as productive team members. The seminar provides students with dedicated time to plan for and critically reflect on their service-learning experiences, as well as to synthesize and integrate what they are learning into their core academic courses. Lastly, the Blue Ridge Scholars also have access to and get support from a dedicated Academic Success Coach who guides them through advising sessions, required academic conferences, tutoring, and other topical sessions like lunch-and-learns.
Community engagement is at the heart of the BRS program. It is a year-long activity in which the students engage in a service-learning project focused on a critical issue in Appalachia. Now in its third year, the critical issues addressed by the BRS program to date are:
- Drug and Alcohol Abuse (Year 1),
- Poverty and Resilience in the North Georgia Mountains (Year 2), and
- The Fannin County School District’s Get Georgia Reading program (Year 3).
Each year, an essential part of the BRS program’s success has been the involvement of its community partners, most notably Fannin County Family Connection. The organization’s executive director, Sherry Morris, has worked as a co-educator with the BRS program, identifying the most pressing needs in the community as well as approaches and strategies to address these important issues.
BRS students have volunteered at a Teen Maze, a simulation designed to inform high school freshmen and sophomores about the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse and teen pre-marital sex. During the current academic year, UNG is working much more closely with the Fannin County local schools in their efforts to boost literacy skills in accordance with the Get Georgia Reading campaign. BRS students will be serving as reading buddies to Fannin County third graders, conducting a book drive for the UNG campus’ little free library, and promoting specific grade-level books at all the Fannin County schools.
UNG’s community engagement efforts have garnered positive feedback from both community partners as well as from the BRS students. The community partner, Family Connection, had a grant partially restored after the executive director informed state legislators of the value of joint projects undertaken as a part of the BRS. Students in the BRS program the previous two academic years have indicated that they have a much more comprehensive understanding of the community and its challenges; many students indicated that they would continue to seek ways to stay actively engaged in the community. And BRS alumni have gone on to leadership positions on other UNG campuses as well as other achievements including: joining the Honors Program at UNG, serving as peer mentors to current Blue Ridge Scholars, serving as student leaders at orientation, and engaging in undergraduate research in UNG’s Environmental Leadership Center.
In the upcoming year, we look forward to continuing our efforts to foster the development of students who lead in the classroom and lead in the community. To learn more about UNG’s community engagement initiatives contact Andrew Pearl, Director of Academic Engagement (firstname.lastname@example.org); Nathan Price, Assistant Professor of Political Science (email@example.com); or Sherry Morris, Director, Fannin County Family Connection (firstname.lastname@example.org).
UNG is also home to Georgia’s Appalachian Studies Center and to the Appalachian Higher Education Network Program Center.