Liberal Education

The Real World in the Classroom: Community Engagement Meets Hands-On Career Development

The greatest challenge as we strive toward excellence in teaching and student success is creating an environment in which anything is possible, for all students regardless of their background, demographic characteristics, or path to college. Conceptual understanding for any student begins with undergoing an experience, and having a memorable experience prompts the cycle of learning. Theoretically, this makes sense: experience + process = individual learning. But the reality is much messier. Learning is more than a single outcome or one-solution result. If we fail to account for this, we have failed as teachers.

Achieving learning outcomes during a semester- or quarter-long course is no guarantee that students “got it”—that students have learned how to learn or that they have successfully bridged the gap between theory and practice. Higher education has developed diverse pedagogical approaches to expand the notion of teaching. These include flipping classrooms, creating student pair-and-shares, offering service-learning opportunities, tackling global issues, and inviting thought partners and mentors into the classroom. Over the past three decades, building connections and long-term, quality interactions within a community has been framed as a way to provide more of a conceptual “real world” experience for students. However, investing in community engagement requires time and effort to coordinate schedules, sustain student motivation, and intersect shared learning goals with external partners. These factors all play a key role in determining how to bring students to the community, particularly students from underserved backgrounds whose time or resources might be especially strained during college. But what if we changed the traditional approach to community engagement, in which students leave campus to engage partners? What if we brought community partners into the classroom?

In 2006, we—Leeva Chung, a professor of communication studies at the University of San Diego (USD), and her former student Daniel McArdle-Jaimes, now a senior communication consultant at Portland General Electric—joined forces to answer this question. We integrated Leeva’s quest for alternative community engagement methods and a global advocacy teaching philosophy with Daniel’s interest in shaping intentional career development paths for undergraduates. Together, we developed a model that brings workforce development partners—community members, business leaders, nonprofit administrators, elected officials, university professionals, and others—into the classroom. These partners collaborate with our students to tackle complex public and community-centric issues ranging from health-care advocacy, e-waste, environmental sustainability, and developing intentional communication and engagement pathways for underserved local and global communities.

From experience to action

So how did the concept for this model come about? While incorporating service learning into communication courses (such as small group communication and interpersonal communication), Leeva recognized that something was incomplete after each iteration. The low level of student participation often resulted in limited self-reflection and insight. Her students were missing a “personal face”—a mentor who could inspire, support, and advise them while they worked with a community partner. She had the idea of engaging a former student to be that face and remembered the tenacity and drive Daniel had originally brought to her class. After graduating in May 2005, Daniel endured a waiting period of countless “thanks, but no thanks” responses from employers. Although he’d been aiming for a permanent position, he reluctantly accepted an internship at a strategic communications firm. Little did he realize that the move would be the launching point to put him on a successful career path that he happily maintains today. When Leeva reached out to him, she asked him to help current undergraduates develop determination, gain familiarity with talking to nonacademic adults, and otherwise prepare themselves for the world beyond campus. He agreed. But rather than simply telling his story to students, Daniel emphasized his experience with enduring struggles, intentional problem solving, and finding courage through self-reliance.

Since starting our partnership, we have created an environment in which students work together to face major problems in the safety of the classroom. Students have learned, for instance, to pitch outreach campaigns for places such as the City of San Diego, Donate Life California, and Stance Socks. They have also learned to defend their research in Q&A sessions with clients ranging from elected officials to board members, executives from the local chambers of commerce, and organization employees. Not only do students begin to understand the complexity of problem solving and learn to interact with professionals; they also gain concrete experiences to draw on when they later interview for jobs.

Education is not about seeking answers but about questioning answers and being open to multiple perspectives—helping students connect their own dots to solve challenges. The classroom can be a holistic place to draw out workforce skills that aren’t covered in lectures or readings. In developing this alternative community engagement model, we have learned to emphasize three foundational pillars that help students bridge classroom theory to life practice.

Pillar 1: Find inspiration in unexpected places

Daniel’s willingness to mentor USD students is an example of finding inspiration in unexpected places in order to motivate students at different levels of learning. Alumni provide the “street cred” needed to teach undergraduates as they workshop career skills and community-based assignments. Alumni can guide students as they navigate workplace dynamics through group projects by helping students understand how to solve problems as a team and how to use their book learning beyond college tests and papers.

“School is sometimes about memorizing facts and dates, but it’s a different kind of challenge to learn an idea or a theory and apply it to everyday life,” says alumna Mae-Ling Choquette, explaining that in the class, students didn’t simply take notes or study for tests. They presented to community professionals as if they were actual clients, who critiqued the ideas and pushed students to think outside the box.

“In my post-grad job hunt, this helped me set myself apart from other candidates,” adds Choquette, who currently works for the investment manager PIMCO in financial recruiting. “I now collaborate and communicate with my colleagues and candidates for a living, and I was more than prepared. I even went to my boss and coordinated a project for [Leeva’s] class in the fall of 2018.”

Pillar 2: Find perfection in imperfection

Student-empowered learning challenges individuals to grapple with accountability—to take responsibility for their education. One way to foster this kind of learning environment is to have students develop viable solutions to a specific company or organizational problem. Alumni can offer realistic challenges for students to take on:

  • Find ways for the university to “go green” and propose environmentally friendly products for it to develop.
  • Create a workshop for re-entry into campus life as students return from studying abroad.
  • Organize an advocacy campaign on campus, such as for promoting sustainability or collecting e-waste.
  • Work with a global nonprofit organization to help it communicate about the importance of investing in water infrastructure in developing nations to promote health, safety, and human resilience.
  • Work with organizations to gain insight into how communities and groups perceive real-world issues, such as potable drinking (tap) water.

For one student project, the City of San Diego Public Utilities Department partnered with the class over two semesters. The task for students: Help department officials gain insight into how multicultural communities and millennials perceive drinking potable water from the tap. Why do these communities prefer to drink bottled water over tap water?

The students compiled research for the department, made the department more aware of local water-supply challenges, connected staff to millennials and multicultural communities, and suggested ways for the department to better engage these demographics. “Students took a complex topic and made it fun and engaging through YouTube videos, infographics, and social media posts that the city shared on a local and national stage,” says workforce development partner Sarah Lemons.

After the project was completed, one student from the class was hired as an intern for the City of San Diego in order to implement strategies and tactics that she and her teammates had proposed. This included printing an infographic on reusable grocery bags and streaming the group’s video on local TV and social media.

“The valuable thing I learned in this class is WHY working in groups tends to be painful,” wrote one student in a reflection paper. “It’s almost like learning how things are made in factories—I never really wanted to know how pasta or sausages were made, but now I know, and I feel more informed. I learned why some people don’t work well in groups, why there is a fight for power, and more important, how to solve these problems.”

Pillar 3: Value small steps

How do educators prepare students for the ups and downs of a career—the dead ends, detours, and long waits—when they must ultimately experience their own struggles as part of their journeys? Some teachers share case studies, theories, and philosophies within an area of study. We do this, too, but we do it in a way that also reinforces the importance of process. The model we have created helps students become more competitive, strategic, and intentional in their career searches, because it exposes students to clients, research projects, and professional assignments and products.

When we first implemented our community engagement model, students who were used to traditional teaching pedagogy and visiting an off-site community organization struggled with the real-time expectations of working with community partners. The disconnect between goals and results caused students anxiety and uncertainty, both individually and as a group. The ultimate aim, however, was not to create “success” but to have students understand that several viable alternatives often exist for solving a problem. The class challenged students to let go of the need for clarity and to focus on the process. Students began to understand the relevance of the class and why they were assigned difficult problems that required field research, grassroots outreach, project management, client interaction, public speaking, and other skills such as video editing, graphic design, and infographic development—all of which prepared students to start their professional lives after graduation.

“I am re-energized by students’ innovative ideas and appreciate the fresh outlook and creative thinking they bring to the table,” says workforce-development partner Brad Makaiau, an assistant director at Donate Life California. He’s collaborated with the class twice, and after each project he ended up hiring a student as an intern. “I’m reminded,” he adds, “how important it is to stick to the basics, which is the ‘project challenge’ in which students attempt to bridge their ideas with what has already been done and what is feasible.”

In order to develop effective members of society, educators must be invested, committed, and flexible. Before students graduate and head into the workforce, educators must mold them into active listeners, participants, and innovators. We want to offer our students a similar kind of inspiration as Oprah Winfrey gave in her 2018 commencement speech at the University of Southern California: “Your job will not always fulfill you. Become so skilled, vigilant, and flat-out fantastic at what you do that your talent cannot be dismissed.”

We are proud to have contributed impressive graduates to today’s global workforce, including alumni in positions with the Kansas City Chiefs, Toyota, Google, and Netflix.

“I recently brought you up at work,” writes a 2018 graduate, “and took my time explaining that what you taught me about myself was more valuable than any lesson in a textbook. It makes me proud, and I hope other students realize it too. I found our external mentors inspiring and would love to help spark that in your students.”

Leeva C. Chung is professor of communication studies at the University of San Diego. Daniel McArdle-Jaimes is senior communications consultant at Portland General Electric (PGE). He serves on the corporate communications team and is part of PGE’s Illumination Project, which works to bridge career pathways for youth and underserved communities to PGE.


Pause and Reflect

Consider the following points as you plan to bring community engagement into the classroom.

  1. I am comfortable allowing students to think more creatively.
  2. I have support on campus, such as guest judges for student projects and departments that need student feedback.
  3. Alumni are available to mentor and otherwise participate.
  4. I created separate rubrics and evaluations for assessing both the final product and students’ process of learning.
  5. I am comfortable having students spend class time on their projects.


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