Mexico, Sweden, US – Different ways to serve communities

Universities around the world are adopting very different approaches to how they serve their communities. Tales of three universities told at the Talloires Network conference near Cape Town from 2-4 December are living proof of this diversity.

Universidad Veracruzana, which serves the coastal Veracruz state in Mexico, has developed its own approach to working with the community, which it calls the ‘dialogue of knowledge’.

The approach, which last semester helped guide over 21,000 students doing civic activities, involves awareness of tradition and adopting a humble approach to community partners.

“We are not going to communities as if we are the teachers, we sit with them because they know a lot and they have been teaching us a lot of their knowledge,” says Beatriz Rodríguez, the university’s vice-president.

One example of this is a project in the Orizaba-Córdoba region where eight faculties are working with indigenous doctors to help them bring traditional remedies to market.

“The social security system does not pay any attention to them, but a lot of people consult them,” says Rodríguez. “So they learn from us and we learn from them.”

This project will start benefiting from support from the MasterCard Foundation Talloires Network Youth Economic Participation Initiative – YEPI – programme next year, when Universidad Veracruzana will start looking for ways of channeling and protecting indigenous knowledge.

Malmö University

Further north in Sweden, Malmö University provides an example of how building a university can help save a city.

Sweden’s third city Malmö went into steep economic decline during the 1970s and 1980s when traditional industries such as shipbuilding and textiles either moved abroad or shut down completely.

People too began to move away and when buildings were torn down they were not replaced. “The city looked like a war zone,” said Vice-chancellor Stefan Bengtsson.

In the late 1990s, leaders at Malmö town hall decided to create a university as one way of reversing the downward trend.

The new institution was structured with multidisciplinary departments and a focus on developing skills and building bridges between the university and community. Its inauguration in 1998 was followed two years later by a new bridge linking the city to Copenhagen in Denmark.

Fifteen years down the line and Malmö is a vibrant city, where new industries have grown up and where one-third of the population is under 35 years old.

The university has played a large part in this. “Malmö is now seen as a place where young people want to live,” says Bengtsson. “Half of the student body is from outside the region.”

Civic engagement programmes such as Nightingale form part of the university’s contribution to helping raise up the community.

Through this project, primary school children who are struggling are each assigned a Malmö University student who mentors them for a year. This might involve cultural activities, help with homework or visits to the university.

“We see this as a long term recruitment activity as the university is lowering the threshold for these kids to consider going to university,” says Bengtsson. This year saw the first Nightingale-mentored school student enrol on a degree course.

The Nightingale model has since been taken up by several other European universities.

Minnesota University

Minnesota University in the United States has spent the last decade developing what Andrew Furco, associate vice-president for public engagement, calls a “20th century approach to civic engagement”.

When a university classifies civic engagement as a separate part of its mission, it usually ends up being seen as a kind of public outreach and, as such, is all too easily relegated to third place.

The Minnesota approach means making engagement an integral part of both teaching and research rather than a distinct activity. “We are shifting the focus of community engagement work, from being just one part of our identity to something that is present in all aspects of what we do,” says Furco.

In this way, engagement can become another way of boosting quality in teaching or research.

For instance, it can make courses more relevant and therefore more attractive to students – “because students seek opportunities to connect their academic work to issues that matter to them outside of the academy,” says Furco.

Repeated surveys of student opinion between 2010 and 2014 back this up; they found that over 80% of Minnesota University undergraduates said that having community-based experiences integrated with their studies was important to them.