PROVIDENCE, R.I. – On Wednesday evening, Roger Williams University students and faculty gathered with community partners to celebrate the significant impact of more than 100 community-engaged projects. These partnerships equip students with the skills and experiences that today’s employers demand while benefiting local and global communities from the Ocean State’s Capital City to Central America.
Held at the brand new WaterFire Arts Center – which had construction led by RWU alumnus Bill Tracey '00, president of TRAC Builders – the fourth Community Engagement Celebration illustrated the myriad ways the University is fulfilling its innovative new core purpose – To Strengthen Society through Engaged Teaching and Learning – and singular goal – To Build the University the World Needs Now – to enhance the education of its students and make a meaningful impact in Rhode Island and the region, as well as globally.
The powerful impact of project-based learning serves both students and the greater community, RWU President Donald J. Farish told more than 450 presenters and guests. By integrating traditional, classroom-based teaching with intensive experiential learning, Farish says, these experiences provide graduates with vitally important marketplace skills and help communities solve real-world challenges. From the Community Partnerships Center (CPC) to the Feinstein Center for Service Learning & Community Engagement to the RWU Law Feinstein Center for Pro Bono and Experiential Education, among other initiatives, the university’s outreach into the community has expanded exponentially in recent years.
“The reason we’re here tonight is to celebrate something that has become ingrained in the way that Roger Williams University thinks about its education – that the full complement of education does not begin and end in the classroom,” Farish said. “We want to make sure our students are ready for the world they will enter, and project-based learning is a wonderful complement to the work our faculty are doing inside the classroom. It’s very different than the typical internship – it’s much more complicated, much more involved, much more systematic and it is hard work with multiple disciplines involved in many of these projects. The faculty have come to embrace this as a new way of making sure our students are getting the very best of what we have to offer, and it’s a distinguishing feature of this university that separates us from other higher education institutions.”
The packed-house event offered a glimpse into more than 100 projects in which students and faculty partnered across the state and the region with nonprofits, municipalities, businesses and other community-based organizations.
For example, an engineering senior capstone project is evaluating the public drinking water supply for the Greater Boston area to understand and help manage the conditions that create algal blooms, while another group of students is creating a GIS database of the private well water supply for the town of Rehoboth, Mass., to provide town officials their first look at the town’s aquifer in order to plan for future growth. The student-led Food Recovery Network chapter has seen so much success in keeping 9,200 pounds of food out of the landfill and served to families in local shelters that they are partnering with universities and colleges across the state to help them start their own food-waste diversion initiatives.
A multi-semester history project collected archival information and photographs to tell the story of “Rhode Island’s Superior Oyster” for historians in the town of Warren. While the School of Architecture, Art and Historic Preservation featured many initiatives from the partnership with Arts in Common and the town of Bristol to renovate several historic school buildings into arts centers, to developing environmental design strategies for the Colonial City of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and reforestation efforts across the state via the RWU Macro Center’s Conservation Corps.
With its focus on pro bono work and clinical experiences that offer law students the opportunity to work with underserved clients, RWU Law also creates a significant impact on communities around the region, particularly in the heart of Rhode Island from the Providence campus at One Empire Street.
“It has always been central to the mission of the Law School to contribute to the community of which we are a part,” said RWU Law Dean Michael J. Yelnosky. “Law students provide free legal services to individuals throughout the state who are facing a broad range of issues. These are tremendously valuable experiences for our students – what they are learning in the classroom comes to life for them, while they develop practical lawyering skills and first-hand understanding of the privilege and opportunity lawyers have to provide pro bono legal services to those in need.”
While all students build real-world skills in these experiential education projects, many also emerge with personal insights and reshaped world views after working on complex social issues, according to Arnold Robinson, director of RWU’s Community Partnerships Center.
It’s important to celebrate this work, Robinson said, with events like the Community Engagement Celebration that allow guests to explore the different types of community-engaged projects at RWU – creating opportunities to establish new connections with community partners and open new avenues for partnerships with other academic areas.