The University’s UROC-based Engaged Dissertation Fellowship program promotes scholarship in action
Scholarship is often thought of as a solitary pursuit. But that perception is changing as universities across the country increasingly embrace publicly engaged research and teaching to improve public health, restore the environment, combat poverty, and address other critical social challenges.
At the University of Minnesota, the Office for Public Engagement (OPE) is leading efforts to increase the number and range of University/community collaborations involving teaching and research that benefit society. A good example of this is the Engaged Dissertation Fellowship program, supported by OPE and the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC).
Launched in August of 2012, the one-year pilot program aims to advance University strategies for more actively supporting students who are doing community-engaged research. Three Ph.D. students were chosen as fellows and are working with organizations in North Minneapolis, where UROC is located, and in St. Paul.
The students—Beth Dierker, Brian Lozenski, and Britany Lewis—receive a small stipend and individual support while also working as a group to advance their community-engaged work. They meet monthly in the University’s UROC building at Plymouth and Penn Avenues with Lauren Martin, UROC’s director of research, Makeda Zulu-Gillespie, UROC director of community outreach, and Sara Axtell, an OPE staff member focusing on faculty development.
The goal, Axtell explains, is to help the students overcome challenges and cultivate the resources they need to do engaged research. “It’s clear that students are interested in public engagement, but that more peer support, mentorship, and programs are needed to help them, especially if they are the only person doing engaged work in their department.”
The need for programs such as UROC’s Engaged Dissertation Fellowship is clear to Andrew Furco, the University’s associate vice President for public engagement. A leading expert on higher education and service learning, Furco is the driver for OPE’s efforts to institutionalize various forms of public and community engagement into research, teaching and outreach activities across all five campuses of the University.
He also co-teaches the course Public Engagement and Higher Education as an associate professor in the University’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD).
The University is committed to making public engagement a central feature of its academic programs, says Furco. “Working with community partners on addressing society’s most complex issues is a thread that runs through our colleges and research units,” he says. “Students in particular benefit when their educational experience is visibly tied to authentic issues in the community—when they work shoulder-to-shoulder with the organizations and people who confront those issues daily, and when they can see the relevance of their academic work and the impact it has on the community and themselves.”
Teaching Critical Thinking
Dierker, Lozenski, and Lewis are exploring differing research areas, but all are committed to making public engagement a central component of their work.
“I like knowing that by doing engaged research, I’m doing something that has real implications and often immediate results for the people in the communities I’m working with,” says Lozenski. A former junior high school teacher in St. Paul and Philadelphia, Lozenski had completed a master’s degree in urban education before coming to the University to pursue a Ph.D. in culture and teaching, a program in CEHD’s curriculum and instruction department.
Lozenski was motivated to return to school after noticing how many African American students, particularly boys, were struggling academically. “I’m an African American man who went to college and is one of the successful ones, so for me it became a question of ‘why’— why aren’t these students doing well?” he explains.
Working in collaboration with community organizations including the Network for the Development of Children of African Descent in St. Paul, Lozenski focuses his research on finding ways to help students learn to think critically, ask questions, and connect with others and the world. “It’s not just about helping them navigate the system, it’s about helping them understand how to change the system to fit their needs.”
Learning From Young Leaders
Dierker is pursuing her Ph.D. in CEHD’s organizational leadership, policy and development department, where her focus is on youth and community development. She is particularly interested in what can be learned from youth who are community leaders, passionate about various issues while working to create change.
Much of Dierker’s research centers around interviews with young leaders and their mentors. Her first meetings with young leaders took place when she worked as an assistant at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development. A subsequent assistantship with OPE expanded her interests to include community-university relationships and engaged research.
Impressed with students’ dedication and passion for issues they care about, Dierker has been exploring what drives and sustains them. What choices do they make and why? What have they been exposed to in their lives? How do they get deeply involved in things that matter to them? What values and experiences have shaped the way they see themselves in their community?
“I think that if we can understand unique youth leaders like these, we will learn a lot about relationship building and support and how those things can make a difference for urban youth in and outside of school,” she says.
Building Genuine Relationships
Who defines the urban agenda? That’s the question Lewis explores in her research as a Ph.D. candidate in the feminist studies program. In her 13 years as a resident of North Minneapolis, she has experienced firsthand how the competing agendas of everyone from developers and community organizations to local churches and residents have defined what’s important in her neighborhood.
Over the last three years, Lewis has interviewed and worked alongside black women activists who are focused on a number of issues, including the use of urban space in North Minneapolis. She has seen the roadblocks the women have encountered and observed ways in which their voices have been thwarted by outside interests, and sometimes by male voices in the community. All of these experiences have informed her research, which she believes will help universities better understand how to engage with the public.
“My engaged approach is different because I live here and my children go to school here, so I am in some ways the subject of my own research,” says Lewis. “What’s important is that I couldn’t have learned what I’ve learned without building the genuine relationships I’ve built over time. That’s what I want to talk about in the concluding chapter of my dissertation.”
Partnering For the Future
In keeping with its mission to connect the University with urban communities to advance learning, improve quality of life, and build new models of university-community partnership, UROC plans to expand the Engaged Dissertation Fellowship program at the end of the pilot year. Plans currently include having a larger group of participants and possibly building a core group of mentors that includes past fellows.
“We’re committed to supporting the work of engaged students through this program,” Martin says. “These students are not only making a difference in communities and generating high-quality scholarship, they’re creating a foundation for work that will be done by engaged scholars in the future.”