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April 16, 2015

Connecting with the Community

oaklandskylineIf Pitt faculty are looking for ideas for service-learning courses, or have an idea but don’t know how to implement it, this fall’s seminar, “Academically Based Community Engagement: An Idea Exchange” should be a great start.

Tracy Soska, a School of Social Work faculty member and chair of the community, organization and social action program in the school, is involved in planning the Sept. 25 gathering. The event will outline the small grants available for incorporating service learning into new and existing courses (including grants from the University Honors College); offer examples of successful current efforts, and introduce faculty to the PittServes and the Community and Governmental Relations offices.

Soska has been creating and overseeing class-related service opportunities for students inside and outside his school for a long time. For eight years he has directed the sophomore Service to Others 2 living/learning community, which builds on the first-year program of a similar name in Panther Hall. Students enroll in the Introduction to Social Work in Civic Engagement seminar course, but their experiences extend far beyond academics. They can network with leaders from local nonprofits as well as business, government and community groups, gain mentoring from faculty and connect with other students interested in social justice and community service.

Each term the students undertake both a group and an individual service project. The idea, Soska says, is for students “to learn how important service is to building your personal and professional skills, and converting your discipline to service in ways that allow you to apply your knowledge in the field. It also helps you apply your own leadership skills and enhance your cross-cultural experience.”

While community engagement may seem a natural for social work students, Soska says anyone in any academic discipline can find a way to serve the Pitt community and apply his or her learning to the project. First-year engineering students, for example, recently worked to devise water collection equipment for a local neighborhood garden.

Beginning in 2000, Soska also was one of the directors of the Community Outreach Partnership Center, which lasted a dozen years. He hopes to revive it in a different form to help mobilize University resources to address community issues, create a more engaged campus and apply the wealth of student/faculty knowledge to the community.

Community engagement certainly is one of the main pillars of Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s current plan for the University, Soska notes; in January, Chancellor Gallagher appointed Kathy Humphrey senior vice chancellor for engagement and chief of staff.

Echoing Chancellor Emeritus Mark A. Nordenberg’s notion of the city as our campus, Soska says, “We’re not just a university in the city, we’re a university of the city.”

The University Times looks at two examples of current classes demonstrating community engagement in action at Pitt. (See related articles here and here.)

—Marty Levine