UA receives national recognition for community engagement


Johnny Hojnacki was already a veteran volunteer when he arrived as a freshman at The University of Akron last fall. From church mission trips to coaching youth soccer, The Valley City resident learned early the rewards of sharing his time and talent to improve the lives of others.

Carnegie CE seal

So when Hojnacki had an opportunity to take an Honors English Composition II class with service learning as its core theme, he was excited about the prospect. He and his classmates logged more than 75 hours volunteering on-site and creating videos designed to help area nonprofits raise awareness and money.

Efforts recognized

In part because of such opportunities, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching today announced that UA is one of 240 U.S. colleges and universities being awarded its 2015 Community Engagement Classification. In addition, UA is the only Northeast Ohio public university to have earned both the Curricular Engagement and Outreach and Partnerships classifications for Community Engagement.

“I’ve been impressed with and inspired by the stories that so many of our students have shared with me, describing their work with community groups as part of their Akron Experience,” says President Scott L. Scarborough. “They help make a difference in the lives of so many different people, which adds even greater value to their own educational experience.”

To earn the Community Engagement Classification, institutions undergo a rigorous application process.

“The importance of this elective classification is borne out by the response of so many campuses that have demonstrated their deep engagement with local, regional, national and global communities,” says John Saltmarsh director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education. “These are campuses that are improving teaching and learning, producing research that makes a difference in communities, and revitalizing their civic and academic missions.”

Campus-wide commitment

“One of the hallmarks of The University of Akron is the dedication of our faculty, staff and students to the growth and development of the communities we serve, and it is gratifying to earn this recognition from the Carnegie Foundation,” notes William M. “Mike” Sherman, senior vice president, provost and chief operating officer. “Combining that commitment to community service with our academic programs helps build a deeper connection between the University and our region to better address the challenges we face.”

Johnny Hojnacki

Johnny Hojnacki, far left, and team members, volunteer their time at Family Promise. The video created by this team won $1,000 for the organization this past fall.

Dr. Karla Mugler, associate vice president, Office of Academic Affairs, agrees. She led the steering committee — comprised of representatives of each of UA’s colleges and divisions — that did a campus-wide survey to learn about the campus and community partnerships before drafting UA’s application for reclassification.

“We found an amazing increase in curricular engagement had occurred since the last application more than seven years ago,” says Mugler. “Students have certainly benefited from the real-life experiences they have had helping design a playground, donating their time to a community charitable event, and encouraging girls to participate in STEM activities,” adds Mugler. “The skills learned through these activities will benefit them in the future..

Longterm benefits

Hojnacki is one of hundreds of UA students who annually, through classroom activities or student organizations, give of their time locally and beyond. Their efforts reflect UA’s mission to be an engaged community partner through teaching, learning and service.

Lauren Garcia-DuPlain

Lauren Garcia-DuPlain, who incorporates service learning into the classes she teaches, often volunteers with her students. Here, she is working at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

“My team worked with Family Promise, which provides housing and services for homeless families,” says the information management major, who is a member of the Honors College. “For me, personally, I had not seen such poverty. To see their needs and to know they could be helped by what we were doing was rewarding. It makes me want to do more in the future.”

UA faculty members, like Lauren Garcia-DuPlain, have created some of these experiences by incorporating the Pay It Forward program in their classes. The joint philanthropy initiative between UA and United Way of Summit County fosters volunteerism, civic engagement, team building and other leadership skills as students work on projects for local nonprofits and compete to “win” funding for “their” organization. United Way provides the funds.

Positive ripples

Since its inception in 2010, the Pay It Forward program has seen nearly 1,300 UA students in 58 classes participate, with $62,800 distributed to community organizations. The classes range from English, nutrition and sociology to law, sport science, graphic design, chemistry and communication.

Garcia-DuPlain, a visiting college lecturer, has incorporated Pay It Forward projects in several of her English Composition II classes. It was in her class that Johnny Hojnacki and his classmates created videos for their organizations. Hojnacki’s team won the competition and $1,000 for Family Promise.

Classmate Mackenzie Jones worked on a team that created a video for the Akron Rotary Camp, which serves disabled children.

Learning on many levels

“This was a great experience to meet and spend time with the kids,” says Jones, a Copley resident who is an applied mathematics major and a member of the Honors College. “Most of us had no previous experience with video, so that was a bit of a challenge. Those on the team who had done videos taught us the best ways to take shots and edit. It was a chance to be creative and give to others.”

Mackenzie Jones

Freshman Mackenzie Jones, far right, works with youngsters  at the Akron Rotary Camp.

Garcia-DuPlain, who did corporate and nonprofit public relations before joining UA, sees opportunities to engage her students in the community as an all-around win.

“Service learning and philanthropy make the classroom work come to life by showing how relevant things like rhetoric and research are,” says Garcia-DuPlain, who volunteers alongside her students as time permits. “All of a sudden, the students are faced with a real audience and a real purpose — and real money that they can earn for a nonprofit.

“Service learning gives us a chance to show the community what our students are capable of,” adds Garcia-DuPlain. “Honestly, it gives our students a chance to see what they are capable of, too.”

Of the 240 institutions that earned the classification this year, 83 institutions are receiving the classification for the first time. UA, first awarded the classification in 2008, is among the 157 institutions now earning the distinction for a second time.

Learn more about community engagement at UA.

See also: