Community service and civic engagement have increasingly been regarded as hallmarks of the educational experience on college campuses. Working in the community beyond a campus offers students real world experience in the form of internships, research projects, and other activities. The results are educational practices that allow students to apply their skills and knowledge to pressing issues and strengthen relationships between individuals and institutions.
The benefits of working with community partners, whether in a surrounding neighborhood or across the globe, carry over into interfaith engagement. For many of the communities, organizations, and individuals partnering with a campus, issues of religious or non-religious identity are particularly salient. For others, interfaith cooperation adds a new dimension of support for their civic causes.
The following examples highlight promising models for some of the most common forms of interfaith campus-community partnerships in higher education.
Case Study #1: Community Assessment at Loras College
At Loras College, a Catholic institution in Dubuque, Iowa, Professor of Religion John Eby piloted a community oriented research project. Its primary goal is to increase understanding of the impact of religious and non-religious orientation on citizens’ attitudes related to religious diversity in the Dubuque area. Students partner with faculty to design and administer a survey at specific institutions in the city, including religious, non-profit, business, and civic organizations. The results will inform Loras College curriculum design and programming for local interfaith organizations. The survey gathers vital demographic information paired with respondents’ opinions on their own worldviews, as well as the worldviews of others in the community. Executive summaries are given to each participating institution for their analysis. The research project has been an opportunity for close student and faculty collaboration at every step in the data gathering and analysis process. It has also brokered key relationships with community partners, built trust, and publicly highlighted the importance of greater awareness of interfaith matters for the local community.
- Assess community partner needs: Whether your work is local, national, or international in scope, take time to consider partner needs and the skills and resources your campus can lend. Let your community know that you are available to be a local resource on interfaith cooperation.
- Assess student needs and abilities: use community research as an opportunity to build and test interfaith literacy. By gaining academic research skills, students also expand their analytic abilities and knowledgebase.
- Take time to build relationships: Don’t let your research work become transactional. Use the process of data collection and analysis to build relationships by bringing community stakeholder input and expertise into each phase of the process.
Case Study #2: Site Visits and Storytelling at Drake University
At Drake University, a private campus in Des Moines, Iowa, Philosophy professor Tim Knepper teaches classes that allow students to learn how local communities practice religion while building meaningful partnerships with them. Students make several site visits to a single community over the course of a semester. Then they work with members of the community they are visiting to facilitate the creation of digital stories about personally meaningful experiences and practices. These stories have become part of a digital archive online chronicling the stories of these communities including multiple Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh communities. Putting their editing, photography, design, and marketing skills to use, students published a book of these stories through a local press. The proceeds of the sale of the book go to a local nonprofit, the Des Moines Area Religious Council, which runs the largest food pantry network in Iowa.
- Move from facts to stories: Use community partnerships as an opportunity to contextualize the knowledge gained in the classroom and develop a nuanced picture of members of religious and non-religious communities.
- Relationship building takes time: Consider the benefits of repeated visits to particular communities to deepen the level of interaction and conversation. Constant presence builds trust between students and community members.
- Document your work: Use the communication platforms at your disposal to chronicle your work with community partners. Leave a record that can serve as a model for others on your campus. Become a storyteller for the wider community; consult with your campus library and/or information science department to help think of ways to institutionalize these stories.
Case Study #3: Alternative Spring Break at Gannon University
At Gannon University, a Catholic campus in Erie, Pennsylvania, the Center for Social Concerns, an office that connects students to volunteer service opportunities, organized an alternative spring break trip to Detroit with a focus on interfaith relationship-building. The trip was intentionally led by a pair of students, one Catholic and one Muslim, who learned to create an interfaith-friendly learning and traveling environment during their time together. In Detroit, the group embraced the interfaith dynamics of the urban area by engaging the heavily Arab and Muslim population of the region. The group intentionally frequented restaurants and museums that allowed them to more thoroughly understand and appreciate this cultural and religious community. Subsequently, this exposure to religious diversity and the relationships formed during the trip, encouraged the development of a student leadership group for interfaith cooperation.
- Be intentional about leadership development: Consider how inviting religiously diverse students into leadership of short-term service opportunities can broaden the possibilities for interfaith learning. Through adding new dimensions to the team building experience students gain a different lens for understanding the hosting communities. Let your host community guide your planning to take advantage of your relatively short time there.
- Using student paraprofessionals or creating interfaith internship programs can harness student energy for community projects and serve as an intentional leadership development opportunity.
- Use travel as an opportunity for experiential learning: utilize opportunities for enrichment and learning through visiting cultural sites and institutions which illuminate the stories of diverse religious communities. The selection of locations for eating and lodging can create opportunities for participant observation and interfaith reflection.
- Harness the energy of the trip: Don’t leave the enthusiasm of trips behind! Once the group returns to campus schedule time to debrief the experience and ask how it can inform the development of future community partnerships and campus interfaith initiatives.