New Focus on the Community Engagement Professional

lina dostilio

The number of administrative staff who support community engagement within higher education has grown exponentially over the past 10-12 years. Looking at the 2014 Campus Compact survey, 100% of respondents report having dedicated engagement staff. Looking at a survey of Carnegie Classified institutions, 91% of respondents reported having full-time administrative staffing for their engagement centers (Welch & Saltmarsh, 2013). Despite their growing numbers, there has been very little empirical literature focused on these administrative stakeholders, such as myself. As a group, we influence the ways faculty, students, community partners, and institutional leaders implement and evolve engagement within higher education. We are typical of a growing administrative labor force within higher education that is neither faculty nor coordinating staff. We hold terminal degrees, have disciplinary training, embrace our role as institutional change agents, and are comfortable in the in-between spaces. We are what Sturm (2010) calls intermediaries or what Whitechurch (2013) calls third space professionals. Still, we are not identified under one job title. Bartha et al. (2014), may have said it best: we are not yet a We.

In the late spring, leaders of Campus Compact and International Association for Research on Service-Learning discussed opportunities for partnership. When the conversation turned to Compact’s interest in establishing a credentialing program for community engagement staff, everyone saw an opportunity to connect the assets of both organizations. I was welcomed into the conversation, having recently been chair of the board of IARSLCE and having a particular interest in the topic. As a center director, I had participated in many of our field’s professional development opportunities (which include Campus Compact’s Diving In and Diving Deep institutes, the Engagement Staff Workshop offered annually at the Engagement Scholarship Consortium, the Engagement Academy, as well as roundtables and forums at a number of conferences such as Imagining America). I had been hoping to build on what we currently propose is best practice for these staff and to undertake an empirical approach so that a research agenda could be established.

My interest in the project wasn’t to promote (or to hinder) the development of a credentialing process but rather to systematically identify the knowledge, skills, and attributes of effective community engagement staff. Undoubtedly, the findings of the study could be used by Campus Compact to determine whether a credentialing process is needed or even desired, as could the findings be used to launch any number of research and practice projects. Further, I was interested in clarifying and claiming the name of Community Engagement Professionals, which intimates a distinction between staff whose roles are restricted to very instrumental or technical functions and professionals whose work is concerned with deepening the civic purposes of higher education. Finally, I was keen to have this inquiry be undertaken by community engagement professionals in a collaborative and constructive approach. With the support of Andrew Seligsohn (Campus Compact), Maggie Grove (Campus Compact), and Patrick Green (IARSLCE), the Campus Compact Project on the Community Engagement Professional was born.

We enlisted the participation of IARSLCE’s Graduate Student Network to invite its current and recent members to learn more about the project. I reached out to Mandi McReynolds and Emily Shields who had just published Diving Deep in Community Engagement: A Model for Professional Development and engaged their thought partnership as well as their networks as potential collaborators. I assembled a team of 15 Research Fellows [1] who pledged to collaboratively construct a literature review of engagement practice literature from which we could identify the knowledge, skills, and attributes necessary to effectively support engagement practice across a small number of domains: institutionalization, organizational change, faculty development, student civic learning and development, community partnership development, program administration and evaluation, and critical practice.

The Research Fellows have been meeting weekly since June and the literature review will be completed in early fall. In the next phase of the project we will ask groups of CEPs to validate and enhance a refined list of the characteristics identified through the literature review. This process, guided by multi-attribute consensus reaching method, will help us to empirically establish a knowledge and practice base relevant to CEPs. Our review has been influenced by the McReynolds and Shields (2015) book, the Imagining America work on Hybrid, Evolving, and Integrative Career Paths (Bartha et al., 2014), and our own notions that community engagement professionals ought to promote critical, reflective, and relational orientations to our practice.

I invite you to contact me or any one of the Research Fellows to learn more about the project or to suggest efforts to which it should be connected. We will be discussing the project further (and in some cases presenting findings or collecting data) at these upcoming meetings: Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities, Imagining America, IARSLCE, and Campus Compact’s 30th anniversary in March.

Lina D. Dostilio (DOSTILIOL {at} DUQ(.)EDU) Director, Center for Community-Engaged Teaching and Research, Duquesne University

[1] Research Fellows associated with the Campus Compact Project on the Community Engagement Professional include Jodi Benenson, Shannon Chamberlin, Sean Crossland, Ashley Farmer-Hanson, Kevin Hemer, Kortney Hernandez, Romy Hübler, Tait Kellogg, Laura Martin, Kira Pasquesi, Lane Perry, Johanna Phelps-Hillen, Melissa Quan, Kara Trebil, and Laura Weaver. Lead Scholar on the Project is Lina D. Dostilio