By Chris Patrick, staff writer
In coastal Virginia, as elsewhere, flooding hampers transportation, damages property, and results in loss of human life. This is not ideal for any community, but underserved communities are especially vulnerable.
In an effort to strengthen the resiliency of these more vulnerable communities, Michelle Covi, Virginia Sea Grant extension staff at Old Dominion University, organized a service learning workshop called “Building University-Community Partnerships for Resilience.”
On May 20, the workshop’s sixty participants gathered at the Old Dominion Peninsula Higher Education Center in Hampton, VA to learn about service learning—the infusion of community service into academic curriculum. About half the participants represented watershed organizations, social services, city neighborhood departments, cultural and educational institutions, and advocacy organizations in Virginia, like the Mariners’ Museum and the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia. The other half were faculty or staff from Virginian universities, including Old Dominion University, the College of William & Mary, Tidewater Community College, Norfolk State University, Hampton University, Virginia Wesleyan College, Christopher Newport University, and Richard Bland College.
“We had people from different groups that had probably never sat together before,” Covi says. She wanted to create a space where representatives from university and community organizations could brainstorm opportunities to partner on service learning projects that would better equip communities to recover from flooding. Through guided conversation, participants fleshed out basic project ideas, and began to tackle potential difficulties.
“Service learning is not well integrated into university curriculums,” Covi explains. “And it’s challenging for faculty to get credit for work they do with students in communities.”
While the workshop acknowledged challenges associated with service learning projects, it also offered examples of successful partnerships. One example was the William & Mary Law School Virginia Coastal Policy Center’s partnership with a community organization called Southeast CARE Coalition.
Law students in the VCPC help the Southeast CARE Coalition address environmental concerns in the Southeast Community of Newport News by empowering residents with information about their environment. Roy Hoagland, co-director of the VCPC, notes that a service learning project must be enduring to benefit a community. “You need to develop authentic long-term relationships,” he emphasizes. “It has to be more than one project for one semester.”
To further encourage partnerships like the VCPC and Southeast CARE Coalition, Covi is now working on a way for workshops participants to match up and develop projects online and is in the process of providing seed funds to initiate projects in Norfolk, Newport News, and Portsmouth.
She hopes to maintain enthusiasm generated by the event by creating and nurturing partnerships—despite potential roadblocks to projects.
“I really wanted to get conversation going, and have faculty and organizations organically make matchups and find common ground,” reflects Covi. “I think it was pretty successful, but there’s still a heavy lift to try to educate the service learning professionals at universities about flooding resilience.”
You can learn more about this National Sea Grant-funded project here.