In early 2020, around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a diverse group of leaders from across Alma College got together to ask themselves: What makes Alma distinct?
One of the key answers that came from that task force was “vocational identity.” It’s an idea that goes back to the very founding of Alma College, said the Rev. Dr. Andrew Pomerville ’01, assistant vice president for community engagement. If Alma College students, staff and faculty work to benefit the communities around us, we can build the skills and fuel the passion to contribute actively and thoughtfully to whatever communities we eventually call home.
It’s also from that group that the Center for College and Community Engagement (3CE) was founded in fall 2021. Led by Pomerville and Carla Jensen, director of experiential learning, the 3CE offers students opportunities to engage, learn and grow in partnership with the local community.
The 3CE is an interdisciplinary venture, something that crosses administratively between the Provost’s Office and faculty, Student Affairs, Admissions and Advancement. On one hand, the 3CE is active in the classroom, partnering with faculty to help students examine sustainable solutions to fundamental civic questions. On another, it’s sponsoring work with local nonprofit organizations, connecting students with hands-on volunteer opportunities to encourage their sense of civic engagement.
The 3CE encompasses quite a bit of work across campus, but its purpose is clear: to help Alma College fulfill its mission to the greatest extent possible.
“There is data on outcomes that show that these kind of high- impact practices affect student outcomes in so many positive ways: whether it’s their community engagement later in life, career outcomes, self-efficacy, comfort in engaging with diversity, and others,” Jensen said. “Wherever students go in life, the experiences they have at Alma will be transformative for where they go next: to lead, serve, grow and everything they want to do.”
GETTING THEIR HANDS DIRTY
Thanks to the 3CE, Alma College students are making a difference in their communities from the first day they set foot on campus. Scots in Service Day took place on Aug. 28, involving more than 300 first-year students — about 80 percent of the total class of incoming students — in community- engaged work in the Alma area. Among other activities, students created cards of affirmation for children in foster care, picked up trash on school playgrounds, and gave a fresh coat of paint to signs at city parks.
The spirit of community engagement through the 3CE doesn’t end after the first week of a student’s college career. The Alma College Community Engagement (ACE) scholarship program has been overhauled to be a cornerstone of the work that the 3CE does. The program — which offers full-tuition scholarships to exemplary students in Gratiot, Isabella and Montcalm counties — now carries with it a requirement to partner in the community to provide leadership, support and sustainable engagement.
ACE scholars meet with 3CE staff multiple times a year throughout their college experience, beginning with discussions about what they perceive the needs of their communities to be and continuing into how they can make a difference. With help from community partners, students learn about fundraising, sustainability and creativity, before ending their college careers learning about how they can create new leadership to carry on their projects after graduation.
Madison Davidson, a second-year student and an ACE scholar, is working to install a local affiliate of the Girls on the Run nonprofit organization, which designs programming that strengthens third- to eighth-grade girls’ social, emotional, physical and behavioral skills. Davidson said she participated in Girls on the Run programming as a child growing up in Alma and it had a positive influence on her life, but the local connection had died out in recent years.
“Being able to tie in my different interests and education into something that helps build confident women of character is something that means a lot to me — and something that makes a lot of sense,” Davidson said. “The support from the 3CE has been intense. We meet monthly and they’re very interested in collaborating with me on it. I really appreciate these opportunities.”
EXTENDING COMMUNITY SPIRIT INTO THE CLASSROOM
The 3CE has extended its influence to the classroom, thanks to Alma College faculty who have designed courses around the concept of community-engaged learning: using reflection to connect community partnerships with academic course objectives to enrich the educational experience of students, teach civic responsibility, and meet the needs of a community.
Students in integrative physiology and health science (IPHS) courses are working with public safety personnel in the city of Alma police and fire departments to test their heart strength, while beginning in 2023, accounting students will learn how to file taxes by preparing tax returns for local individuals.
The 3CE worked with Anne Porter, assistant professor of English, to develop a new Spring Term course in 2022, Interviewing and Active Listening. Students learned how to build rapport with other people, focus conversations and prepare to conduct informational interviews with members of the community. These interviews led to a broader understanding of Alma College’s place within the community — and how the college could potentially help more people.
“It’s crucial for people doing any type of community work to explore the skill of active listening, because positive changes come from a place of shared understanding,” Porter said. “People don’t often understand the values they hold in common — and the only way you can do that is by talking to each other. What the 3CE and I tried to do in this course was to teach students to cultivate conversations, so they focus less on their differences.”
The 3CE also sponsored and assisted students and faculty with entering the Michigan College Alliance (MCA) College Community Challenge in 2021. This project, a local subset of the nationwide Ford Foundation College Community Challenge, is designed to connect faculty with students to create projects that benefit their communities. Alma College was awarded more than $30,000 in stipends, scholarships and grants through the MCA competition and has been asked to participate in it again this year.
EVEN FURTHER OUTREACH
The Alternative Breaks program — which allows students to spend time doing service work both within and outside the community — has been expanded and revitalized under the 3CE.
Students now serve during fall, winter, spring and summer breaks, as well as on select weekends during the academic term. Service trips that travel outside the region are thematically connected to those in the local community, and students are offered opportunities to apply what they learn during travel breaks in their home community through ongoing engagement.
Alternative Breaks student leaders receive training about how to plan and lead ethical, responsible community engagement and then put these skills into action. They gain leadership experience while helping identify partner organizations, plan trip logistics, recruit participants, and lead service and reflection. All participants are asked to consider and share how their Alternative Breaks support their ongoing community engagement, both in Gratiot County, and wherever they call home.
Ten percent of the Alma College Class of 2022 participated in an Alternative Break during their college careers, and Danielle Nykanen hopes to see that number rise for future classes. Nykanen, a senior at Alma who serves as co-president of the student organization, said she has gone on several Alternative Breaks during her time at the college and they have proven to be fun ways to build community.
“I’ve made some great friendships through Alternative Breaks. It’s a chance to get out of your comfort zone, meet new people and do something positive with your time away from class,” Nykanen said. “Our affiliation with the 3CE has only been a positive for us. It’s allowed us to better connect with the communities we’re trying to serve.”
The 3CE is also funding a partnership program designed to bring local middle school students into Alma College classrooms, in order to benefit from college faculty and use equipment they wouldn’t otherwise find in their schools. The Alma Enrichment Partnership Program: Science, an eight-week long experience for 17 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students, launched in September, and organizers hope to expand the programming to include disciplines outside the sciences in the future.
“I don’t think we could ask for a better resource to be optimized and utilized than this, which is right in our students’ backyards,” said Stacey Criner, superintendent of Alma Public Schools. “I am very grateful for our partnership with Alma College and hope to see it continue. It’s in line with where we need to be.”
There are big plans for the future of the 3CE. Organizers are working to build out its offerings, both curricular and co-curricular, and tracking students who are involved in those programs during their entire time at Alma. The hope is that every student who is interested in taking part in 3CE programming will have opportunities to do so.
The 3CE is moving its physical location in 2023, from its current digs at the Tyler-Van Dusen Campus Center to the new Hatcher Learning Commons. When it does, it will be even more capable of meeting students, staff and faculty where they are at, and connecting them with where they want to go.
“We’re thrilled for all that we have done so far and excited for what’s to come in the future,” Pomerville said. “We believe this is something that makes Alma truly distinct — both in line with our past and where we’ve come from, as well as geared toward the future of the institution. If you’re reading this, we invite you to come along for the ride.”