Post by Alexandra Conis, JMU Engagement Fellow ’18-’19

The James Madison University(JMU) engagement fellowship is a new initiative meant to provide recent graduates with the means to give back to JMU and to the community. A fellowship is different from an internship; it is a mutually-beneficial partnership between the recent graduate and the organization for which s/he has been selected.

The learning outcomes of Engagement Fellow’s Year of Service include:

  • Demonstrate a sense of responsibility and obligation within the community and organization they serve.
  • Anticipate how policies, decisions and issues impact community relationships and proactively attempt to maintain mutually beneficial partnerships through constructive dialogue.
  • Approach complex problems through the practice of interpersonal skills that promote teamwork and acceptance of diversity of thought regarding goals and priorities.
  • Cultivate continued interest in public policies that promote community investments, connections, and improvements.
  • Perform responsibilities with growing attention to principles of social justice, ethical decision-making, and empathy.
  • Uphold meaningful and productive connections between the university and community, and be alert to possibilities for expansion.
  • Explore personal strengths and improve upon weaknesses, with particular emphasis on developing career options and exploring life plan goals through experiential learning.
  • Display an understanding of organizational communication and interconnectedness and how entities work together to solve larger community-based problems.
  • Recognize how personal and career goals can include responsiveness to community needs and be rewarding to self and others.

Two engagement fellows and I (another fellow) met with community leaders in order to find ways to achieve these learning outcomes and to gain a better understanding of our roles within the community. We attended the Homelessness and Affordable Housing Forum, and the United Way Community Tours.

The three of us met with Sal Romero, coordinator of Family and Community Engagement, to discuss how JMU can be a good partner and engage authentically and democratically with the community. Carah Whaley, associate director of the Center of Civic Engagement at JMU, also joined us for the meeting.

During our discussion, Mr. Romero mentioned a variety of resources in the Harrisonburg community. For example, the Harrisonburg Community Mennonite church has a volunteer service unit program similar to the engagement fellowship program. The church connects their volunteers to one of seven different non-profits in the area: NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center, Fairfield Center, Harrisonburg — Rockingham Free Clinic, Harrisonburg City Schools, Johann Zimmermann LLC, Collins Center, or Gemeinschaft Home as part of their year of service.

The Mennonite church is not the only entity engaged in the community. Another group is the Home School Liaison programs found in individual schools. They provide interpretation services for Spanish speakers and serve as a bridge between parents and school officials.

“Engagement needs to connect to academic achievement,” Romero said. His vision is to equalize learning opportunities for every student, so that literacy rates are well distributed across the spectrum of students that patronize the public school system. These objectives can be achieved if the students’ social and emotional wellbeing are fueled by strong family and community ties.

Romero facilitates workshops at Cargill and Perdue, two poultry plants that hire a variety of workers, as part of a partnership between the two plants and Family and Community Engagement. These workshops cover topics of importance to these audience members: transportation, literacy, and high school freshman year adjustment.

Romero is grateful for the support he receives from the university. However, he has noticed that, at times, there is a disconnect between what student volunteers understand to be their role and what is needed from the position they fill. More intentional placements, critical listening and better preparing students to engage with diverse communities would help rectify this issue.

What it boils down to is a need for greater collaboration among participants. Sometimes you have to move backwards to move forward. Each program in the community should be assessed for its contributions to ascertain what has been accomplished, what needs to be accomplished, and whose voices are missing from the conversation.

Ideally, in the future, a community engagement fellow position would be embedded in the JMU Engagement Fellowship program, which, as of now, does not have a specifically-assigned community fellowship. All fellows, one way or another, work within the community but not specifically as a liaison. This position would “embrace, engage and empower” the community and JMU as well.

Ultimately, it the responsibility of every citizen in Harrisonburg and in the surrounding area to see to the welfare of those that live in our great, Friendly City.

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