Living the Mission

A NU Look at Service Learning

On paper, the mission of Niagara University’s Institute for Civic Engagement is to reinforce the university’s commitment to the region by strengthening existing community partnerships and forming new town-gown relationships. But in practice, the institute’s director, Dr. David Taylor, is envisioning a much greater purpose for the institute. He wants it to be a catalyst to transform higher education, and to perhaps even change the world.

“One of the long-term visions for the institute is to develop programming and opportunities that are distinctly Niagara,” Dr. Taylor says. “In a Vincentian community and university, we can help nurture an idea someone has to change the world and bring it to fruition. That’s what we should be doing, particularly things designed to help people in need.” He adds that the creation of a social entrepreneurship incubator within the institute might be one way to achieve this.

While this vision has a decidedly global perspective, the steps needed to bring it about start on the Niagara campus. Dr. Taylor notes student learning must be at the heart of everything the university is doing, and that the institute’s partnerships are being developed with the intention of making experienced-based learning opportunities increasingly available to students. While Niagara has long offered a service-learning component in the classroom, Dr. Taylor says this initiative looks at service learning in a different way.

“I understand the value of service and its potential to greatly impact students, but we have to remember that students are at a university,” he says. “There needs to be a stronger connection between what the students do in terms of service and the specific learning outcomes associated with course content.”

This doesn’t mean that he advocates against the traditional service-learning Niagara’s students have been doing for decades. In fact, the institute will assist NU’s Learn and Serve Niagara program in identifying opportunities for creating these kinds of experiences. But Dr. Taylor is hoping that the partnerships he forges also lead to hands-on work that students can detail on a résumé as applicable experience for a job. He references a Niagara computer and information sciences course during which students earn a nationally recognized certificate in forensic computing and says he’d like to help create more of these kinds of learning opportunities.

“Students, on average, take 30-40 classes here at Niagara,” he says. “Imagine if in every one of those classes they did something that was worthy of being put on a résumé. Imagine what that résumé would look like after 40 classes.”

With his knowledge of the university’s capabilities and his numerous contacts in the community, Dr. Taylor says he can serve as a matchmaker between university professors who want to add résumé-building practical experiences to their course curriculum and the community organizations tha are looking for assistance. The institute can also be a resource for professors who want to design and conduct research-based projects in the community.

Dr. Taylor notes that it is becoming increasingly important for students to have an international experience, and that the institute can help create those opportunities as well, whether they are through partnerships with international agencies in the local community or through connections with organizations that have a worldwide presence, like the Vincentians.

The institute, which officially opened in September, is the formalization of an initiative launched by the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M., when he was named president of the university more than 10 years ago. At that time, the Committee to Assist in the Revitalization of Niagara Falls was formed to help build capacity in that city. Numerous community relationships have been built since then, and the institute was established to ensure the continuation of this important work. It will also serve as the home for two of Niagara University’s flagship community-minded programs, Border Community SERVICE and ReNU Niagara.

Dr. Taylor was the obvious choice for director, due to his experiences prior to coming to Niagara (he lived homeless as part of his dissertation research) and his recent immersion into Vincentian history,spirituality and service as part of the initial cohort of the Vincentian Mission Institute, a program designed to address the distinctive nature of Catholic and Vincentian higher education by developing successive generations of lay leaders to support the unique identities of these universities.

The VMI experience culminated in a trip to France beginning at the birth place of St. Vincent de Paul and tracing his life throughout the south of France. “It became clear to me that Vincent was an incredible organizer, someone who could inspire his contemporaries to serve the poor and oppressed,” Dr. Taylor says. “But he was also able to refocus his efforts as the needs of the community changed. As Father Robert Maloney, C.M., once wrote aboutVincent, ‘He had the courage and skill to walk where none had walked before.’”

Inspired by St. Vincent, Dr. Taylor is ready to help Niagara refocus its efforts to prepare for the dramatic transformation in higher education he believes will happen soon. “It will be one unlike anything that those currently working in the field have experienced,” he says. “Thus, it is important for colleges and universities to revisit their mission and purpose and to develop both a short- and long-term strategy to guarantee the highest quality education possible for their students.” He’s confident that the institute can be a valuable asset in this regard.

To that end, Dr. Taylor’s goals for the immediate future are to build a full slate of partnerships between the community and the university: big and small; formal and informal; with and without academic components. In five years, he’s hoping that this effort leads to a “tremendous increase in very targeted, high-impact, high-quality experiential learning opportunities forstudents.” And long term?

“The choice of the words ‘civic engagement’ in the name of the institute was intentional,” he says. “So any way that we can better engage everyone in our university community in the civic life of not only our local and regional community, but also at the national level, would be a broad but long-term goal.”

Given the progress that’s been made so far and the passion Dr. Taylor has for the work, Niagara University’s Institute for Civic Engagement jus tmight change the world after all.