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Center Raises the Bar for Community Engagement
Written by Catherine Czarnecki    Bookmark and Share

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Friday, 22 August 2008 22:32

The Center for Public Service (CPS) at Tulane University was established in 2006 as a part of the university’s renewal plan following Hurricane Katrina. At that time, Tulane was the first major university of its kind to incorporate a mandatory community-service initiative into its graduation requirements for all undergraduate students. Since then, undergraduate students have been taking part in service-based projects all over the city. Working hand-in-hand with community organizers, volunteer groups, and local schools, CPS has allied students and their community counterparts in a symbiotic relationship of learning and volunteerism.

Cara Zacks, a Program Manager at the Center for Public Service, works as a liaison between the students and faculty and the Center. “Tulane is the first and only major research university to institute a public service graduation requirement for its entire student body,” said Zacks. “The graduation requirement, as well as CPS, was born out of Tulane’s Renewal Plan. This plan was developed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and was approved by Tulane’s Board of Administrators."

Zacks said that an important element of the plan was the recognition by the university that community engagement be at the core of the university’s mission. "Tulane determined that the public service graduation requirement would enable the university to meet its goal of being a powerful and positive force in the reconstruction of the region,” she said.

The idea behind the Center for Public Service is the recognition that public service is essential to building and sustaining healthy communities, as well as responsible citizens. The Center believes that by blending academic work with civic engagement, students walk away with a better understanding of their community, as well as a greater appreciation of New Orleans. Zacks elaborated on this founding maxim: “CPS believes that combining academic coursework with relevant hands-on work in the community helps enrich the students’ classroom experience. We also believe that this community work promotes socially responsible and civically engaged leaders. Being directly involved in their community helps students better understand the challenges that face New Orleans, particularly after Katrina. Students feel a sense of accomplishment while helping these organizations meet their goals and develop an appreciation for importance of being actively engaged in their community. We believe this will remain with our students for the rest of their lives.”

Building upon what groups before them have done, students take part in semester-long projects that aid the community, while also working to the lay a foundation for future groups to come. The volunteer projects are coordinated through a public-service class that students take, under which a focus relative to the service-learning project is emphasized and instructed. The classes work in conjuncture with a variety of volunteer organizations, from the national to the local level. Groups like Communities in Schools, Outreach New Orleans, and Habitat for Humanity are all utilizing the opportunity to work with the Center. “Often, organizations in the community approach us to establish a relationship,” Zacks said. “But, the Center for Public Service has a Campus Community Partnership team that actively seeks out and maintains partnerships in the community, be they with schools, hospitals, or non-profits. Sometimes, a service learning faculty member is interested in partnering with a particular organization that CPS has not yet worked with, and faculty bring these groups to our attention.” Representatives from the organizations meet directly with the students to coordinate a project, and are available for guidance over the course of the semester. These representatives also have a hand in evaluating the students’ overall performance.