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University Learning Community: A Hidden Gem

July 18, 2018

By Abdullah Budeir, Writing Intern
ECL Communications Newsletter
Emory University Campus Life
July 18, 2018

Emory’s first University Learning Community (ULC) is a hidden gem formed around the conviction that both parties in community-campus partnerships should work together as equal partners.

“The best partnerships are true collaborations and mutually beneficial,” said ULC cofounder Kate Grace. “ULC is a university platform for service, social change, and community building – a place where students, faculty, staff, and community members can engage in mutually beneficial activities.”

Vimband team in laboratory

Members of Emory's ULC team. From left: Shan Mukhtar; Kate Grace; Julia Munslow 18C, Emory IDEAS fellow; Kim Loudermilk, Emory College faculty; John Wang 18C, Emory IDEAS fellow;
and Vialla Hartfield-Méndez.

ULC is part of an “organic” process of assessing student, faculty, and staff learning interests across university departments and linking them with opportunities to serve the Atlanta metro community, according to Grace, who also serves as director of Community Building and Social Change (CBSC) Fellows Program, one of the Civic and Community Engagement (CCE) initiatives in Campus Life.

“In spring 2017, CCE partnered with the university’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence to launch the ULC pilot,” said Grace. “The effort is focused on Atlanta’s Buford Highway Corridor and organized around the theme of art and social transformation.”

Participants include 26 students, faculty, staff, and community partners. As a result of the team’s readings and discussions, several mutually agreed-upon projects were launched in the spring, with others underway by fall 2017. Today, five initiatives are in operation and more are planned.

ULC co-founder Vialla Hartfield-Méndez is director of engaged learning with Emory’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence (CFDE).

“The primary goal of ULC is building partnerships that are collaborative, mutually beneficial and informative, sustainable over time, and that generate future projects,” she said.

“Art and community make strong academics possible,” Hartfield-Méndez explained. “Sharing personal narratives is a potent healing tool that builds community, and such community is the essential ingredient to learning. When people are comfortable being themselves, they learn best.”

This core philosophy is encapsulated in the University Learning Community’s name and embedded in its diverse and in-depth projects. The pilot involves more than 25 stakeholders, including 10 community partners and over a dozen Emory students and faculty.

One ULC project collaborates with local residents to map the linguistic landscape of the Buford Highway area. A second, a partnership with Chamblee Library, brings together community members to share their life stories as part of a living library project.

Meanwhile, one group of Cross Keys High School students is exploring theater skills as study techniques; another is developing a participatory arts-based project to enhance health awareness among afterschool students. In a recent meeting, many students expressed an interest in continuing their ULC work.

Shan Mukhtar, who learned about ULC as a graduate student working with Hartfield-Méndez and CFDE, completed her PhD at Emory in 2014. Today, as assistant director of the Emory ESL (English as a Second Language) Program, she has been instrumental in art-based learning at Cross Keys and elsewhere.

“When I became assistant director of the ESL Program, I sought out CFDE and CCE to continue community engagement work because its effect on my teaching and scholarship had been profound,” Mukhtar recalled. “I truly felt it would improve the educational experiences of international English language learners in the college.”

Invited by Grace and Hartfield-Méndez to join ULC, Mukhtar learned a whole new dimension of engagement work. This enabled her to produce an Emory course as a collaboration between her students and Cross Keys language arts teachers and students in fall 2017 and a collaboration with Drew Charter School’s dance teacher and students in spring 2018.

Mukhtar spent months meeting with community and university partners. She explained her interests to partners, listened to them, and searched for an “organic” best fit. Her diligence paid off. She was able to develop an innovative approach that built engagement with Cross Keys High School into Power of Story (ENG221), an Emory course that she taught in spring 2018.

Meeting of Emory and community partners

Emory and community partners collaborate in project conceptualization, planning, and implementation. From left: Rigoberto Rivera, high school program manager for the Latin American Association; and Karen Stolley, Emory Department of Spanish and Portuguese faculty.

Students in this course acted as student teachers in language arts classes at Cross Keys. Partnering with Cross Keys teachers, they conducted activities focused on story-telling, including story circles, story-cube games, free-writing exercises, theatrical exer-cises, and debates that support the learning already taking place in classrooms. The activities worked well with the Dekalb schools’ language arts curriculum that the teachers were already following.

As part of their assignments, Emory students interviewed Cross Keys teachers to understand their approaches, interests, and more about the school community. Mukhtar also provided feedback to her students to make sure their activities complemented the Cross Keys curriculum and they maintained frequent and open communication with the high school teachers.

The success of the Cross Keys effort is now a blueprint. Building on lessons learned in the Buford Highway pilot, Grace and Hartfield-Méndez are planning to establish a second University Learning Community in southeast DeKalb this fall.

However, ULC’s impact will not limited to the Atlanta metro area for long. Mukhtar has been appointed director of the Center @ Moore Hall at Providence College. 

“My first order of business in my new assignment will be to develop a participatory process through which the center can build relationships with on-campus and off-campus community leaders and organizers,” she said. “Basically, I am taking all my learning from ULC to Providence College and trying to recreate the process there.” 

With its innovative approach and planned expansion, ULC continues to serve as a catalyst for transforming engaged learning and community involvement – one of the ways Campus Life and the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence are partnering to support the university’s mission “to create, preserve, teach, and apply knowledge in the service of humanity.”

Learn more:

University Learning Community:

Community Building and Social Change Fellows:

Civic and Community Engagement:

Center for Faculty Development and Excellence: