Power is only important as an instrument of service to the powerless. Lech Walesa
Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world. Nelson Mandela

Accountability and articulation of students' capability to perform in a knowledge-based, technology driven global society has increased. Employees are demanding a workforce with excellent critical reasoning skills that are grounded in democratic principles, with practical experience in the field, and the community. The good news is: "More than ever before, cities and universities are joining together in mutually beneficial partnerships to promote regional vitality and university development. (Richard M. Freeland, President of Northeastern University and Thomas M. Menino, Mayor, City of Boston. Chronicle of Higher Education Campus Viewpoints, p. 1.)

The desire that propels us to build and sustain a society lies in the cultural and historical values of our communities. Local and state decision makers dwell in the community; therefore, it is in everyone's best interest to collaborate, in order to achieve successful outcomes at both the academic and the civic level. One engine fuels the other.

This essay will discuss the emerging trend of access and academic success. In the past, local communities looked to the universities and colleges as an avenue for improving local intellectual capital, economic opportunities and regional revitalization. For many civic leaders, higher education meant opportunities to educate first generation college students who would return to the community with new knowledge and critical thinking skills, to achieve change for the common good. Unfortunately, many students who graduated relocated in search of better job opportunities, leaving an economically and emotionally depressed community with a negative attitude towards the local colleges and universities. Also, as tuition cost increased, fewer students were able to attend college.

Columnist Thomas Charles (1994, p. 7) wrote that "when higher education is treated as a cyclical balancing wheel for state budgets, a social cost is imposed from which it is difficult to rebound: many students are excluded based on their ability to pay. Legislation linking State funding to the achievement of specific benchmarks reflects high priorities being placed on economic ’˜outputs' and ignores public service, public engagement, critical thinking and democratic-building activities."

In 2000, the Declaration of Responsibilities of Higher Education established a premise that, "We live in a time when every sector-corporate, government, and non-profit is being mobilized to address community needs and reinvigorate our democracy. We commit our institutions to wide range examinations of our civic and democratic purposes, through curricula and extra-curricular activities, socially engaged scholarship, civic partnerships, and community-based learning and research."

Declarations like these set the stage for major civic organizations and higher education institutions to revisit, research, and document, the impact of this collaborative paradigm. We see new excitement and revitalization permeating the local communities, and cities are being transformed, in collaboration with the constituents they serve. There is a new sense of ownership and pride. Students work side by side with community partners, intentionally engaged in application of theoretical knowledge to real-life situations. This reciprocal teaching and learning experience is helping the student gain a clearer understanding of the needs in the community and a deeper knowledge of how career choices operate in the workforce. The Chronicle of Higher Education: Campus Viewpoints from Northeastern University, (2006) also states that "For their part academic leaders are much more concerned about local and regional conditions than they were in decades past. They have learned through experience that vital, thriving communities can attract talented students, faculty, and staff. Universities are moving beyond merely coexisting with their communities, toward working in concrete ways to support regional vitality in areas ranging from workforce development, to affordable housing, urban health, public safety, and business growth’¦ The hope is that these efforts will lead to a lasting shift paradigm for town-gown interactions: one that promotes constructive cooperation based on a fundamental alignment of interests."

According to Webster's Universal College Dictionary, ‘access’ is defined as: "the ability or right to enter or use; the right or opportunity to approach or speak with; and more important to me, is the definition which says, "The state, or quality of being approachable." The entire education process from childhood to adulthood is a series of steps, systematically structured, to prepare for mastery of certain skills, to become an active member of that society. The regular setting for teaching in higher education is primarily within the walls of the university, an area set apart from the community. Communities where students are to return as educated citizens ready to play an important role in a community are essentially foreign to them. What value are the theories and abstract generalized concepts, if students have not learned their applicability to the community?

Authors Ray Marshall, and Marc Tucker (1992) stated: "The future now belongs to societies that organize themselves for learning...nations that want high incomes and full employment must develop policies that emphasize the acquisition of knowledge and skills for everyone, not just a select few. To address these policies, we must think globally, engage in new ways of attaining knowledge, and deepen the value education access, brings to a nation's success."

Academic life should be a replication of the social/political constructs, and the best way to achieve that balance is to advocate for mutual access for all stakeholders. Each stake holder is essentially a gate keeper of knowledge that must be transferred, if a society is to remain sustainable. Vital traditional wisdom that can not be taught in the classroom must be learned at its source, the community. Mankind by nature is a social animal, unable to thrive in isolation. Advocates for individualism should understand the academic process that non-western cultures that work and play in groups have achieved.

As Astin & Astin (2000, p. 2) stated, ‘If the next generation of citizen leaders is to be engaged and committed to leading the common good, then the institutions which nurture them must be engaged in the work of the society and the community, modeling effective leadership and problem solving skills, demonstrating how to accomplish change for the common good"

Many of our students come to college without cultural grounding. What I am referring to is understanding one's place in the society. The history, traditions and values learned from community engagement were not transferred to certain generations, because of the transient nature of many, underrepresented families' lifestyles. Therefore higher education can serve as the bridge for access and plant the seeds for successful university-community partnerships, and increase the graduation rate for students.

African-American students seem highly developed in practical and creative skills; however, critical thinking skills and analytical skills must be improved. Education access does not always guarantee successful learning outcomes. African-American students' learning styles are different and they ultimately fall through the cracks. Immense pressure is placed by politicians and policymakers to raise the level of achievement and accountability, to prepare these students for success in the global market place. Theories translated into practical applications help students to learn that multiple talents can be accessed to formulate or solve problems. Similarly, this applies to faculty who are habitual isolationists, many stuck in the rut of the traditional mode of a lecture style teaching because of the separate silos that exist on most campuses.

Thomas Charles (1994 p. 7) wrote that ‘The values, processes, and relationships that are unique to higher education and that bind colleges and universities to one another and the communities surrounding them are critical to sustaining, and advancing the causes of liberty, justice, security opportunity and economic productivity.’

The community is a living laboratory where the ambiguities of life challenge students to think outside the box. They not only are able to connect the concepts across disciplines, but discover latent skills that may have otherwise remained dormant. The community offers for many, an incentive, and a call to action, because members want to make a difference. There is ownership when one is actively involved in a project from start to completion. It has been proven through several studies that mice repeat and recall what makes them feel good. This is where the reward system works. Reinforced 'feel good' behavior occurs when students realize the difference they made by using their knowledge to impact someone in the community.

I believe in holistic learning and yes, it takes an entire village to make this happen. In the villages outside of the urban cities of West Africa, I noticed that part of what made the Bush Schools effective transmitter of education was an educational culture that promoted a sense of community that was supportive, safe and orderly, and conducive to a positive teaching and learning climate where achievements and success were regularly recognized and rewarded. Their education was not isolated but integral to the society, and a part of each person's daily experiences. Family members and the community helped to nurture and mentor the students on their journey. Students had access to learn through apprenticeship at the feet of the local craftsmen. Listening and learning by doing, resulted in a mentoring relationship between the student and the craftsman.

To gain such experiential learning, we must not only take the students out into the community, but we must allow the community to have access into our campus environment. We must cultivate a state or quality of being approachable, as well as willingness to approach others. The non-traditional student population is itinerant in its pursuit of the specific education sought want, sometimes attending two campuses at once, and even taking online courses from another. We must cultivate a form of peripheral learning. Peripheral vision defined means all that is visible to the eye outside the central area of focus. In today's global society, higher education cannot excel in isolation, students must not only be aware of theoretical and practical learning, but peripheral learning. Many of the underrepresented population are already adept in this area, because of the economic circumstances that focuses on self-preservation in case of sudden dangers. A typical phrase heard among students from socio-economically deprived background is: "Whenever I go somewhere unfamiliar, I quickly skirt or check out the territory for the nearest exit, just in case." Students want to know how what is being taught in class relates to their immediate surrounding, and we as educators must be ready to guide them through this process.

The goal of learning is development of knowledge, skills, attitude, values, and other cognitive, affective, and motor qualities needed to deal effectively with life. This type of learning cannot occur with surface learning such as memorization of isolated facts. Knowledge transfer requires extended practice using knowledge in contexts other than where it was learned, and understanding the principles for using it appropriately in diverse life situations — that is, deep learning (Bransford et al.,1999).

For many civic leaders in the community, the thought of open access to the university is still novel. Strategies I use to ease the process are two fold:

  • Participation in the community's literacy and Civic League monthly meetings. During each meeting active listening is my norm because so much of the community's history, strengths and needs are shared and discussed. I am also given an opportunity to share what is happening at the university in areas of service, new research and students' accomplishments.
  • Results: an after school tutorial program was established at the NSU Brambleton Community Outreach Center. Norfolk State University students from the School of Liberal Arts provide services four days per week.
  • The Community partners are invited every other month for a light lunch discussion at the university. The joint taskforce which includes administrators, faculty, staff, and students, engage in group discussions for improving the quality of life in the community.
  • Results: Needs generated from these sessions were: grant writing training, developing a curriculum for early childhood literacy, and assistance with adult illiteracy. In collaboration with the Hampton Roads, Chamber of Commerce Literacy program and the Office of Service-Learning, guest presenters from Norfolk State University and Old Dominion University's sponsored program offices, conducted two workshops on grant writing during the academic year. A taskforce of students from the School of Education sit on the local public school Literacy Council, along with a faculty member, to assist with the curriculum revision. Students performed on-site service-learning by tutoring adults who are preparing to take their GED in the campus library, after 5:00 p.m., or on Saturday mornings. Allowing access to the library sparked the adults' interest in becoming computer literate. (Many of the local community members do not have access to a computer.) "Much learning takes place informally and incidentally, beyond explicit teaching or the classroom, in casual contacts with faculty, staff, and peers and through community involvement.’ (Engelkemeyer & Brown, 1998)

Students must be given access to the community. This is where concepts such as citizenship, activism, social responsibility, exercising the right to vote, and academic success translate into meaningful learning and internalization of what matters most: using knowledge for the betterment of society. I envision a community learning incubator laboratory, placed in the community, maybe at a recreation center, where faculty, students, civic leaders and business entrepreneurs can share and learn from each other in a non-threatening environment. We plan to establish a student/community leader, mentoring for research purposes, and provide ongoing training for grant writing, community building, and economic partnership development. The civic and community faith-based organizations will conduct workshops to share the local history and best practices to improve outreach interaction. Leveraging resources that can be shared in preparation for natural disasters and sharing strategies for presenting issues at Town Hall meetings will help empower the community to be enablers and the students to become socially responsible.

In collaboration with the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment, ongoing evaluation of learning outcomes in the areas of academic learning, personal development, and program development (Conrad and Hedin, 1987) are annual benchmark indicators administered to evaluate the progress of service-learning for academic success at Norfolk State University.

University-community learning access for academic success comes in many forms just as the diversity of the students we serve. We must allow more creative modes of teaching. We must engage the globally changing community around us. The future belongs not only to students who are able to develop complex critical thinking and problem-solving skills, but to those who are able to apply it to the myriad array of situations within the global marketplace. Faculty who are willing to be facilitators instead of teachers, willing to discern innovation in the making, and enable students to stretch beyond the rigidity of the classroom, must become the norm. With the power of technology, the world is just a click away, but it will never change the transformative powers of human interaction and interdependency, to propel us to the next level as engaged citizens of the world.


A.W. Astin and H. S. Astin. Leadership Reconsidered: Engaging Higher Education in Social Change, Battle Creek, MI; W. K. Kellogg Foundation, 2000, p.2.

Conrad, D. and D. Hedin 1987, Youth Service: A guide book for developing and operating effective programs. Washington, D.C.

Kellogg Commission on the future of State and land-grant universities, 2000 Renewing the Covenant: Learning, discovery, and engagement, in a new age and different world.

Wright, M. E. (2001) What We Can Do: In T. Smiley (Ed.) How To Make Black America Better: New York: Random House Inc., N.Y. 2001

Leider, J.L (1985), The Power of Purpose, New York: Ballentine Books

Campus Compact (1999), Presidents' Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education. Brown University, Rhode Island

Marshall R. & Tucker, M. (1992), Thinking for a living: Education and the Wealth of a nation. New York: Basic books

Bransford et. al.,(1999),Bransford, M., Thinker, D., Walterbros, R . Engelkemeyer, S. W. & Brown, S., (1998), Powerful partnership: A shared responsibility for learning. AAHE Bulletin (Oct. 10-12)

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