Home » New grant awards aim to foster high-impact educational opportunities, uplift communities

New grant awards aim to foster high-impact educational opportunities, uplift communities

New grant awards aim to foster high-impact educational opportunities, uplift communities June 14, 2024

Leaders of Coe College’s Prison Learning Initiative were among the recipients of grants from the Spencer Foundation and ACM to foster community-based learning programs. (Photo provided by Coe College.)

The Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) recently awarded nearly $30,000 in grant funding to project teams at six member colleges to foster the development and execution of innovative community-based learning initiatives. The funded projects show promise to create sustainable, meaningful experiences for students and faculty, while leading to positive change in the cities and towns ACM campuses call home.

The majority of the funding for the grants comes from the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, which invests in education research that has the potential to improve society. The ACM contributed additional money to ensure more proposals could receive funding.

“Liberal arts students often crave opportunities to see how their classroom learning relates to what goes on beyond the boundaries of their campuses,” said Lisa Jasinski, the president of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. “We are proud to support worthy projects that empower students to both deepen their learning and use their knowledge to uplift their local communities.”

One of the recipients, Coe College, will use a $6,400 grant to extend its Prison Learning Initiative (PLI) in the greater Cedar Rapids area. The cross-disciplinary effort provides hands-on exposure to students and community members to help them better understand the impacts of incarceration on individuals returning to society.

The Coe College PLI includes a book distribution project which delivers reading materials to correctional facilities throughout the Midwest. (Photo provided by Coe College.)

“The phrase used most often by participants at our events is ‘eye-opening,’” the Coe College grant applicants wrote of the PLI, which includes activities such as a reentry simulation, a book distribution project to correctional facilities, and a series of discussions and performances.

Coe College plans to continue growing the PLI, with a focus on creating spaces where students and campus visitors can learn about building communities that support people after their releases from prison. According to the project leads, the PLI’s focus on safety and reducing harms from crime and incarceration is consistent with Coe’s mission “to prepare students for meaningful lives and fulfilling careers in a diverse, interconnected world.”

Faculty members at Lake Forest College will use their $5,500 award to continue a partnership called Serve to Learn. Primarily first-generation students work as interns at a courthouse in Waukegan, Illinois, combining their language skills and classroom learning about the legal system to assist Latinx community members navigating the courthouse.

“This program is a confidence-builder for students who can use this opportunity to implement classroom skills into the real-life environment of the circuit courthouse,” the grant applicants said of Serve to Learn, adding that it has assisted hundreds of clients seeking legal services and guidance.

Program directors are currently developing new approaches to Lake Forest’s Community Based Learning class, which will be a prerequisite for the courthouse internships. Those educators say the program is consistent with the college’s values around diversity, equity, and inclusion since it engages historically underserved students and supports community members who are primarily lower-income members of minority populations.

The community-based learning opportunities supported by this round of awards are examples of what are known in higher education as “high-impact practices” (HIPs). Researchers have found that through HIPs, students achieve improved educational outcomes, connect better with academic learning, and develop skills post-graduate employers prize, including teamwork, critical thinking, and communication.

According to the American Association of Colleges and Universities, service-focused coursework embraces the spirit that “giving something back to the community is an important college outcome, and that working with community partners is good preparation for citizenship, work, and life.”

Four other ACM colleges were included in this round of awards.

  • Macalester College will use $6,000 in grant funding to launch an initiative focused on supporting faculty members as they forge meaningful new relationships with community organizations and develop approaches to experiential teaching in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
  • Beloit College will benefit from a $6,000 grant to build on its Community Connections Courses. Those courses enhance classroom learning through partnerships with local nonprofits. Examples include students in Beloit’s Spanish classes serving as after-school reading buddies to dual-language elementary schoolers, and English students using their understanding of queer theory to program LGBTQ+ short films for the Beloit International Film Festival.
  • St. Olaf College and Luther College received support to collaborate on developing seminars that embrace vocational reflection and further engage students with off-campus partners. Participating faculty have also pledged to develop evidence-supported ways of assessing student success in community-centered learning. They will share their findings with the fourteen ACM member institutions.

“Increasingly, these are the types of experiences students enjoy and find valuable,” said Brian Williams, the ACM vice president for strategic initiatives. “It’s particularly exciting for us to see examples of cross-campus or cross-discipline collaboration reflected in the projects that received funding.”

The projects at Coe, Beloit, and Lake Forest Colleges receiving funds from the Spencer Foundation Equitable Civic Engagement Institute and ACM are extensions of existing work which received previous support through an ACM program known as Institutionalizing Community-Based Pedagogies. That program was funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

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