Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

March 6, 2014

UPB reports on community-building efforts

Pitt-Bradford’s Office of Community Engagement is building on existing ties to the community, campus representatives told members of the University Senate’s community relations committee (CRC).

“We’re always trying to build relationships between our students and our community,” said Holly Spittler, UPB associate dean of student affairs and director of career services.

CRC met with UPB Feb. 17 via conference call, the committee’s second annual long-distance discussion aimed at strengthening ties between the Pittsburgh-based CRC and representatives on Pitt’s regional campuses who are involved in serving their local communities. Last year’s call connected CRC with Pitt-Greensburg.

Spittler said the Bradford campus has enjoyed strong community support since its inception 50 years ago, adding that students have been involved in community service, informally at first, then through the establishment of co-ed service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega in the late 1980s and the more recent establishment of a Circle K chapter, affiliated with Kiwanis Club, and a Habitat for Humanity campus chapter.

Student clubs and organizations long have been active in community service, Spittler said. Efforts were formalized through the establishment of UPB’s Center for Leadership and Service, under the direction of career services and the student activities office in 1996, she said.

In 2010, plans were underway to build the Harriett B. Wick Chapel and strengthen the leadership center by hiring a coordinator dedicated to coordinating chapel events and heading a new Office of Community Engagement.

The community engagement office was established in 2011 with Tonya Ackley, a former graduate assistant in the leadership center, as coordinator of community engagement and the new Wick Chapel.

“Thanks to Tonya, the activities of both the office and the chapel have really flourished,” Spittler told CRC.

Ackley said students tend to prefer volunteering in groups, rather than individually, therefore she connects with volunteers through the campus’s approximately 40 clubs and organizations. Resident assistants and sports coaches and captains also are good resources for getting their groups involved, she said.

Ackley said she has maintained many existing annual events including a grandparents’ day freshman event, Big Brothers/Big Sisters recruitment, United Way Day of Action (similar to Day of Caring), Make a Difference Day, National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week and Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.

Checking calendars well in advance is crucial, she said, noting that the nonprofit groups’ calendars don’t always align with students’ academic schedules. “Calendar issues are always a concern.”

In addition to pairing Bradford campus student groups with community organizations based on mutual interests and purposes, Ackley said she works in partnership with student groups to support their projects and ideas.

However, some student efforts are planned independently, with campus officials discovering them only after the events are covered in the local newspapers.

“Sometimes the students are very humble,” Ackley said. “They’re doing service but not always reporting it.”

Her interactions with faculty tend to focus on service-learning aspects of service and with internships and longer-term volunteer opportunities.

Kannu Sahni, Pitt’s Community Relations director and a chancellor’s liaison to CRC, shared some approaches he’s found helpful in raising awareness of community opportunities.

“It takes a lot of different voices and different outlets to get the word out,” he said, noting that social media has been helpful. “We tweet a lot now about programming,” he said, adding that Community Relations also uses the Pitt Facebook page and the portal.

“I think the biggest help in this process has been word of mouth,” Sahni said: School- and department-level volunteers who lead the University’s United Way efforts are good contacts for disseminating information about other service opportunities.

Sahni said he also works with the student government and student organization leadership to engage students in projects involving the broader University community.

CRC member Tracy Soska, faculty member in social work, added that it is important to cultivate “champions” in various areas by connecting with people who already are active and involved in community efforts.

“You’re building a support base among people who are committed and engaged already. Part of the challenge is to find who those people are and build your relationships with them so you can grow your network across campus,” he said.

“It’s not just using the social media, it’s having the on-the-ground troops really run that day-to-day organizing of this kind of work.”

Soska  noted  that  Misti  McKeehen has joined Student Affairs to lead the new PittServes community service initiative. She most recently was a site director for Public Allies Pittsburgh, a program of Coro Pittsburgh.

Sahni said the new University group will provide a single point of contact for coordinating community service.

In other business:

  • John Wilds, assistant vice chancellor for Community Relations, said the Salk Hall annex is on track to be ready for fall occupancy.
  • CRC member Maggie Folan of pharmacy announced that a health fair organized by professional pharmacy course students is set for 10 a.m.-2 p.m. April 11 in the BST3 lobby. The event will cover 19 different health issues and include giveaways and a raffle.
  • CRC’s next meeting is set for noon March 18 in 156 CL, a change from the committee’s regular meeting location.

The committee’s April 15 meeting will be a field trip to Uptown. Soska is coordinating details.

CRC’s final meeting of the term is set for noon on May 20 in 272 Hillman. That meeting will focus on planning for next year.

CRC will need a new chair or co-chairs for the coming year, said co-chair Laurie Cohen.

—Kimberly K. Barlow