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The Gustavus Adolphus College Partnership Council

The Gustavus Adolphus College Partnership Council: Leveraging the Power of Community Connectors

By John Hamerlinck, Minnesota Campus Compact

A unique committee of community connectors, created in part because of a service-learning project, leverages local knowledge and social capital to bring together partners and additional assets to campus-community partnerships in a rural Minnesota community. A community-based research project aided by this process is profiled. The service-learning project supports two challenges faced by local mental health professionals.

Gustavus Adolphus College is a small, private, liberal arts college located in St. Peter, Minnesota. St. Peter is the county seat of Nicollet County, and is located approximately 70 miles southwest of Minneapolis. The city has a population of just under 10,000. College students make up around one-fourth of that population.

Jeffrey Rathlef took over as the Director of Community Service and Service Learning at Gustavus, at the beginning of the 2008-2009 academic year. He was new to the school and new to the community. Rathlef decided to have some students help him to better understand the existing relationship between the campus and the community.

Five students enrolled in a January Interim Experience class taught by Rathlef. The students and eight community partners set out to interview residents, faculty and students, in order to hear about their experiences relating to each other and interacting with various services and programs provided through current St. Peter-Gustavus cooperative endeavors. The students then applied that research in the creation of a proposal for a way to better facilitate campus-community partnerships. The students’ analysis of what was working and what wasn’t, together with their survey of models of engagement at other campuses across the country, led them to propose what would eventually become the Gustavus/St. Peter Partnership Council.

The Partnership Council consists of a group of community members including Gustavus staff members who “are recruited on the basis of the "uniqueness" that each member's own community connections bring to the council as a whole. Members serve not solely as representatives of particular groups, but rather as "connectors" who draw from their unique personal and professional networks in the community to explore, consult, and support proposals for civic engagement.”

Many college service-learning or community engagement offices have advisory groups that inform programming and practice. What is different about the Partnership Council is its role in connecting people with ideas to assets in the community that might help to turn those ideas into reciprocal campus-community partnerships. The Council doesn’t vet, rank or in any way judge the value of proposed projects. The Council consists of connectors, people who collectively know many of the people in this rural community. They also have an awareness of community culture and history that allow them to make connections that other people may not see.

Faculty, students or community members submit proposals through the Partnership’s Web-based forms. Ben Leonard, Executive Director of the Nicollet County Historical Society and Partnership Council member, refers to the Council as a "conduit for relationships." This is because once proposals are received, they are forwarded to Council members who review them at a monthly meeting. People who submit the proposals then engage in a conversation with the Council, during which potential community assets and partners are uncovered and discovered.

If you are a faculty member looking for a specific type of community partner, or a community-based organization wondering who on campus might be passionate about and knowledgeable about their mission, the Council can help. For example, if a faculty member wanted to incorporate a service-learning project that addressed youth obesity the Council would connect them to organizations with current programs related to the issue as well as to people who might also be planning programs or have conducted programs in the community in the past.

This approach to relationship building might not work at a large urban campus; but in a smaller rural community it is possible to convene a reasonably-sized group of people who have a comprehensive set of knowledge and relationships that cut across every community sector. So far this model for connecting people and ideas seems to be working.

In the first year of its existence, the Partnership Council reviewed 30 proposals around both service-learning and co-curricular service. Of these proposals, 17 were either community or student initiated service proposals. Thirteen of the proposals were faculty-submitted service-learning inquiries. In only four of the 30 cases were partnerships not found for the project submitters.

New Connections and New Approaches

Dr. Marie Walker is a faculty member in the Psychology department at Gustavus. She had incorporated service-learning into courses in the past and was interested in identifying potential community partners where students in her Abnormal Psychology course could serve the community while learning how mental illness is experienced and treated locally.

Walker submitted a proposal to the Partnership Council. Her inquiry led her to be introduced to Barb Christenson, Social Services Supervisor for Nicollet County Social Services and to Patty Pierson, Program Supervisor at Shiloh’s Hope a social services provider in St. Peter, specializing in supporting people with severe and persistent mental illness. These new connections also led to a form of service-learning that Walker had not anticipated, but eagerly incorporated into her course – community-based research. Conversations with her two new community partners brought to light a need for local research needed to address two community issues and two research projects.

The first project was aimed at finding appropriate facilities for young adults diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome or autism spectrum disorder who behave aggressively. Eight such individuals had recently been deemed by a local advocacy group to be deprived of active treatment in the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center, a state-run residential facility that treats people who are mentally ill and/or chemically dependent. The Center occupies 580 wooded acres at the southern end of the city and is the community's largest employer.

The individuals had been scheduled to be released months earlier, but because there were no facilities that would meet their treatment needs as well as the safety needs of the community, there was an impasse. Even if there were a facility available, it would be prohibitively expensive. The County is responsible for the placement of these individuals and Shiloh has experience treating their conditions.

The second research project was to lay the groundwork for the development of a Mental Health Crisis Response Team (CRT) for Nicollet County. When law enforcement is called to deal with someone experiencing a mental health crisis, they may not have the appropriate training or access to mental health professionals. The CRT would respond to individuals in mental health crisis when police or other emergency personnel are called to control a difficult situation. Students were asked to review multiple CRT models and assess local assets that might be employed in the establishment of a CRT.

Two teams of about a dozen students each took on the two projects. Each team divided into subgroups responsible for different aspects of the research. All students were responsible for written and presentation deliverables. The end products included recommendations for moving forward with either the residential placement of people with autism disorders or the CRT that were based on relevant community and academic research.

Student Outcomes

This was the first experience Dr. Walker had with engaging students in community-based research with community partners in this course. She was very pleased with the results and is eager to develop more community-based research projects. According to Walker, students were not only able to articulate what they had learned about abnormal psychology and understand it in a real world context, but they also honed a number of practical professional skills and better understood how mental health issues were affected by social and political dynamics.

Some students got experience interviewing service providers. According to Walker:

"The service providers were sometimes uncooperative because they were offended that someone would perceive a person with autism as dangerous. These professionals had not had experience with such populations and students were very confused to hear one mental health service provider say there was a need to find placement for such individuals and another set of experts to say that no such combination of characteristics existed in their experience."

Students also benefitted by being able to place mental health within a context of public safety, legal issues and economic realities that cannot always support desired solutions to challenges faced by both clinicians and public officials.

Community Outcomes

Student recommendations were presented to the community partners. The project looking at the issue of the release and treatment of people with both autism and aggression identified and analyzed individual cases, facilities and cost issues. The students detailed legal implications, public safety issues and treatment options. They recommended a case-by-case approach, continued staff and community education and an evaluation of available treatments. The students also outlined a research agenda that would get the community closer to a resolution of the issue.

The team researching the establishment of a CRT created a detailed set of recommendations that began with a strong case for support for a CRT. The recommendations suggested the composition of the team, outlined legal issues, training needs, and budget discussions that suggested a cost benefit analysis encouraging county funding.

According to Pierson, “The research provided by the students was a great starting point, and the potential for further research and possibly development is out there, and my hope is that future classes can carry this to a new level.”

In both cases, the community impact may not be immediately apparent, but the research done by the students will ultimately help public officials to make informed decisions. That value may be difficult to measure, but it is priceless.

Rural Opportunities for Community-Based Research

Community-based research is an underused service-learning approach. This is particularly unfortunate for smaller, rural communities where community sectors are less distinct and civic capacity cannot be supplemented by professional support. Many small towns have very few full-time employees. They don’t have planning departments to do basic research. Students in a variety of academic disciplines frequently discuss fictional case studies, while real communities, facing real challenges, seek information that will actually make civic life work because it requires an informed citizenry.

Understanding what opportunities exist for community-based research may require a little more work and preparation than sending students out to fill volunteer slots. However, that work can be enhanced and supported by engaging the wisdom and social capital of community connectors like the citizens who serve on the Gustavus/St. Peter Partnership Council in St. Peter. In the words of Linus Pauling, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”

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Yorkshire Dales Landscape background photo by Petr Kratochvil.