The University of the People, for the People

A Mission not Forgotten

Engaged Scholarship Fulfills the Needs of North Carolinians

Quality in graduate education is a multi-faceted concept. One of the most common benchmarks nationally is the ability to conduct groundbreaking research. Graduate program rankings based on quantitative measures often score this type of quality tallying academic journal publications and citation indexes. Some say, however, that truly excellent academic programs also deliver the benefits of research to the broader community, working to fill societal needs. Is there a metric for capturing that aspect of quality?

“I think that universities are generally seen as ivory towers,” says Jo Anne Earp, Chair of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But Carolina is the mecca of applied research. We pride ourselves on being the ‘University of the People.’”

Consistent with the University’s mission, many graduate programs at UNC-Chapel Hill share their discoveries and usable knowledge with North Carolinians, fulfilling the needs of communities and improving the overall quality of life.

Some programs were founded upon values of social commitment while others have responded to societal needs. Many UNC-Chapel Hill graduate programs push the traditional boundaries of imagination and discovery and embrace innovative solutions to relevant problems. The result is enriched learning experiences for graduate students and meaningful connections with the people of North Carolina.

A Tradition of Advocacy

The Old Well

Established in 1943, UNC-Chapel Hill’s department of Health Behavior and Health Education (HBHE) — part of the Gillings School of Global Public Health — exemplifies the socially oriented character of many programs at the University. Former Chair Guy Steuart helped black South Africans fight discrimination during apartheid. He then instilled a strong sense of activism in the program.

“Steuart designed a way of learning from, and giving back to, the community,” Earp says. “He brought this model to Carolina and applied it in the classroom, teaching students to make a difference through scholarship in a community-conscious way.”

While all public health degrees share a focus on improving health at a population level, HBHE specifically translates its social commitment into intensive fieldwork. “This is the department that develops intervention,” Earp says. “Making a difference in communities is what we represent.”

A 200- to 400-hour practicum and an action-oriented course targeting underrepresented local communities challenge graduate students to apply classroom knowledge to the realities of professional environments. The latter (also known as Capstone) also shows how engaged scholarship stretches beyond the realm of academia to generate mutual benefits.

“The Capstone is not one-direction, but rather a synergistic effort,” Earp says. “While students learn how to apply their knowledge, the community has a say in what is designed and delivered. We want to make sure we build on the people’s strengths and give them back the fruits of our knowledge.”

The endeavor yields tangible results. Over the last 35 years, more than 1,000 HBHE students have helped 260 North Carolina communities, delivering products that are both scholarly and practical, such as grant proposals, Web sites, and training programs.

“Our students share a kind of social commitment, which is extremely important given our fieldwork tradition,” says Laura Linnan, HBHE Professor. “Capstone's uniqueness lies in making sure the work is also valuable and timely for our community partners.”

For Meg Ellenson, Field Coordinator and MPH graduate, the course was a greatly rewarding experience that shaped the rest of her college career. “As part of the class, I worked with five other students and developed a community diagnosis for Burmese refugees,” she says. “I took on the recommendations that stemmed from that work, and turned my thesis into a grant proposal on behalf of the Art Therapy Institute in Durham to fund therapy sessions for refugee children.”

Ellenson's work yielded concrete benefits, as the institute obtained funding, and still offers this support. “This is one of the joys of applied research — having a tangible and sustainable result,” she says. “Ultimately, if you uphold all the principles that you learn in class, you can make a sustainable impact on the life of your community.”

If you look around the world, you’ll find no other university like Carolina, the nation’s first public university. And that’s not the reason we are unique. Let me remind you that no university except Carolina has risen to world-class status by deciding early on that one of the primary missions of this university was to get down closer to the needs of the people this university serves.

— From Governor Beverly Perdue’s University Day Address, October 12, 2009

From the Lab to the Field

The department of Exercise and Sport Science (EXSS) has become a leading program conducting engaged scholarship, showing how a lab-based research program can benefit people’s daily lives. “Twenty-five years ago, this department was viewed simply as physical education, but we became a science-based program,” says Kevin Guskiewicz, EXSS Chair. “We do a lot of laboratory-based research, but it is just as important for us to apply it in the field.”

Physiology, sports medicine, and sports administration are the department’s areas of expertise, with research targeting a wide array of issues, from concussion and childhood diabetes to musculoskeletal injury and breast cancer rehabilitation.

The close interaction between students and faculty distinguishes EXSS from competitors across the nation, applying research to real-world settings. “I'm most proud of how our graduate students are involved in all our projects.” Guskiewicz says. “They conduct research in the labs, then go out to share the results. Most of them complete a full-time, year-long internship through which they make a difference in people's lives.”

For example, the department researched obesity and diabetes, resulting in the development of more sound physical activity programs. Graduate students and faculty are now reaching out to local elementary and middle schools to educate children and promote healthy lifestyles.

“Our primary focus is human movement,” says Ed Shields, EXSS Director of Graduate Studies. “Our goal is to help people develop healthy lifestyles and provide them with the necessary knowledge to do that.”

EXSS research also targets sports medicine. Over the last five years, the department has been conducting studies to identify predispositions to anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. For example, doctoral student Lindsay DiStefano successfully tested an ACL injury prevention program with youth soccer players in Chapel Hill. The results show a decrease in risky movements by players, helping the state develop exercise programs that reduce the risk of injury, improve overall fitness, and save millions in health care expenses.

The department is also a nationwide leader in assessing sport concussion. “Our faculty work with the UNC-Chapel Hill Center for the Study of Retired Athletes to analyze side effects of concussion, such as dementia,” adds Shields. “We also partner with the North Carolina High School Athletic Association to improve safety standards for young student athletes.”

Through time, applied research has contributed to EXSS’s reputation for excellence, granting the program a prestigious accreditation by the Commission for Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE), given to only 13 other schools in the nation.

“Our focus on sports means that we develop close relationships with people outside the University,” Shields says, “Ultimately, our goal is to improve everyone’s life.”

Boots on the Ground

Since President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known as the “stimulus package”), local governments have had to revise their funding application procedures; officials faced tight headlines, had to work through different agencies, or simply did not know about the availability of funds.

Consistent with its commitment to public service and the economic development of the state, UNC-Chapel Hill created the Carolina Economic Recovery Corps (CERC) program, which sent students across the state to help localities apply for funding and recover from the crisis.

“The program relies on a ‘boots on the ground’ approach,” says Jesse White, Director of the Office of Economic and Business Development. “Simply put, we send people to help understaffed local governments.”

CERC partners with 17 Councils of Government (COGs) statewide. COGs are multi-county, regional planning organizations that provide services to local towns and counties and administer federal programs. “This program basically extends the reach of low-capacity communities that might not be able to write a grant,” White says.

Through CERC, highly qualified students from a wide array of disciplines such as Social Work, City and Regional Planning, and Law, joined local COGs to help them list funds, find out about grant eligibility, and identify competitors.

The program reaches out to the entire state. In its first year, interns joined local agencies in Asheville, Charlotte, Rutherfordton, Washington, Wilmington, Wilson, and the Research Triangle. The goal is to fulfill the urgent need of economic plans specifically tailored to each area, White says.

“CERC shows how the University can respond quickly to an urgent issue in the state,” he says. “Considering that we first brainstormed this in April 2009, it was a pretty astonishing organizational effort.”

The program integrates research, public service, and teaching, showing how the University can create synergistic collaborations with local communities and the whole state. “It's a classic case of combining excellent teaching with engaged scholarship and public service outreach,” White says. “What UNC-Chapel Hill can offer to North Carolinians are faculty and students, and the brainpower they have developed working as researchers and teachers. CERC supplies intellectual capital to areas in need and provides students invaluable real-life experience.”

While interning at CERC, graduate student Brian Taylor worked with the North Carolina League of Municipalities, coordinating the efforts of county, city, and town managers to help identify their needs and apply for funding. “The whole experience was sort of a testament to return on investment for the local communities,” Taylor says. A lot of gaps needed to be filled, especially in rural areas.”

Overall, CERC interns collaborated with more than 90 localities, providing 3,500 hours of assistance to small, medium, and large communities in the state. Interns directly contributed to 22 grant applications and provided technical assistance and outreach for many more. These endeavors yielded immediate benefits, already resulting in three funded external grants.

Full-Circle Engagement

Our students learn what’s cutting edge in research and knowledge and take that out into the field.

— Anna Scheyett, Associate Dean, School of Social Work

Engaged scholarship goes beyond just sharing the fruits of knowledge with people outside the University; it challenges graduate programs to learn from the community. UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work (SSW) developed a model called “360° engaged scholarship,” which builds on constant feedback between the real world and the classroom.

“The community engagement component is really part of the educational model of social work education,” says Dean Jack Richman. “Generating knowledge that is relevant to people is part of our responsibility as social workers.”

The school makes a point of sharing the results of research with community partners, says Anna Scheyett, Associate Dean in the School of Social Work. “Our model emphasizes a constant feedback loop between learning and doing, between seeing what’s going on in the real world and bringing it back to the classroom,” she says. “Our students learn what’s cutting edge in research and knowledge and take that out into the field.”

Many UNC-Chapel Hill graduate programs require students to do internships, and Social Work is no exception. “On average, the School has about 250 students doing 20 hours of fieldwork per week,” Scheyett says. “Through this time, they carry out interventions targeting various areas of need, ranging from interpersonal therapy for depressed teens to programs for former convicts with mental illness and policy change in child welfare.”

The internship gives students the opportunity to engage in various activities to address a specific social issue. “Some of our students tackle domestic violence working for local agencies and shelters, providing women with immediate assistance but also developing long-term programs,” says Jean Livermore, Associate Director of Fieldwork Education at the School. “Their efforts carry a broad geographic footprint, as we have interns in Alamance, Chatham, Wake, and Orange counties.”

The economic impact of this endeavor is strong. “It’s a huge amount of time,” Scheyett says. “Since most of the internships are not paid, the University donates to the state millions of dollars in volunteer time each year.”

Engaged scholarship goes beyond the numbers, it is an intangible approach, founded on the pursuit of excellence through caring and teamwork, spanning programs and bestowing a unique identity upon Carolina and its students. As Chancellor Thorp once said, “We’re the university of bothand: both academic prominence and a commitment to our state.” Simply put, it’s the Carolina Way.

♦ Luca Semprini