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March 30th, 2020 3:54:40 pm

Community-Engaged Learning in Times of COVID-19

or, Why I’m Not Prepared to Transition My Class into an Online Environment

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Those of us who base our pedagogy on public engagement are being forced to operate under conditions that, whether we like it or not, are shaping an educational experience with no guide for our students to understand the assignments that define it, that does not allow a set of practices in our curriculum to impart it. And I have been researching and asking resources, strategies, or even some form of wisdom from those who teach classes on the public good to figure out what to do for myself, for my partners, and for my students Well, I am not satisfied with what I have found; and I bet neither are my fellow faculty members and public scholars.

“I leave that up to you.” This is what many of the community-partners connected to my class reply back when I email and inquire as to whether or not they wish my students to resume volunteering at their sites. I do not need to speak to each individual to know that they are probably dealing with mass absenteeism from paid staff and volunteers. But it seems they would rather have me make the decision.  I have to be the one to tell five student volunteers, whose combined labor totals to around twenty hours a week, whether or not to discontinue their work with this organization.  I am not prepared to transition to online-only instruction nor am I prepared to make hard decisions. This is how I was going to start the email to the person who serves as my institutions' faculty department head, but, knowing that he is dealing with five others I have sent him already, I want to put my thoughts out there, in the hope that they will reach others who teach community-engaged classes, so I can learn what might be working for them in these times of COVID19.

I am an assistant professor at UMR, the smallest of the campuses in the University of Minnesota system.  As a health-sciences campus, UMR is “committ[ed] to empower students to be engaged citizens and collaborate with the local community to solve healthcare challenges” (UMR’s Public Engagement Action Plan, 2015).  I am the lead faculty member of a team-taught, upper-level division course, Community Collaboratory, (CoLab, for short) that connects students, faculty, and community partners to engage in effecting social change in the Rochester community.  CoLab students gain professional skills that they will need as science and medical professionals by volunteering their time in the field while they engage with theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches to community health during lectures. I currently have 52 students working for one of ten non-profit organizations, whose scope of work ranges from providing early childhood education services to arranging health services for vulnerable older adults, from coordinating after school STEM-based activities for low-income middle schoolers to helping deliver adult education preparation curriculum for new Americans. Yes, it is a lot of work. And I had everything under control until COVID19 drove all university educators to become online course designers.  

At the announcement that my university was moving to online-only, my heart sank. My job was not only to figure out if, but how I could even use breakout rooms in Zoom to lead group discussions on community-based research methods without looking foolish in front of students.  I also needed to figure out how to substitute the valuable work that my students are providing our community partners directly with… well… what?  Virtual volunteering? WTF is virtual volunteering? What projects do our partners have that need students working remotely? Social media tasks? Internet research? “Maybe they can design some brochures in Canva…” Brochures? Really? Should I really ask the director of an organization that connects older adults to companionship services if she has any busy non-direct service work for my students to do?  I am way too Latina to bother this woman with this nonsense because she and I know very well that face to face engagement fills a vital and irreplaceable need in their clients’ lives. There is no alternative assignment here.

Educators delivering community-based courses know that many of the non-profits we work with cannot function without the labor of students who volunteer their time in exchange for the opportunity to apply their skills in the “real world.” In the pre-COVID19 world, I was sending my students out there in a somewhat ordered and predictable environment. For my students who had, until this term been, immersed in Biochemistry II, for example, the predictability of completing their CoLab fieldwork hours, writing their reflection papers, and completing their project narrative sheets was comforting. They found themselves in a world comprised of conditions and opportunities, (which in my community-engaged learning lingo would be referred to as an educational experience) that I curated with the help of my community-partners and fellow faculty members connected to CoLab. And as I keep whining, I am not prepared to have them engage in this very real, for-real-fucking-real world, where the epidemiological understanding of a virus is still being mapped and analyzed by those with more training than I have. A world where decisions about our collective survival are still being negotiated by those with more greed than you and I can even begin to imagine.

Those of us who base our pedagogy on public engagement are being forced to operate under conditions that, whether we like it or not, are shaping an educational experience with no guide for our students to understand the assignments that define it, that does not allow a set of practices in our  curriculum to impart it. And I have been researching for practices, strategies, or even some form of wisdom from organizations that provide community-campus expertise to educators to figure out what to do for myself, for my partners, and for my students  Well, I am not satisfied with what I have found; and I bet neither are my fellow faculty members and public scholars.  Social distancing has been prescribed as an answer to the health, safety, and wellbeing of our student community. However, many of us in the community-engaged teaching realm know that our students do the work connected to the health, safety, and wellbeing of other communities. Social distancing is centered on the understanding of what individuals can do to respond to this crisis. Those of us who operate by connecting communities to institutions of higher learning understand that but we are afraid to come to terms with the truth of the matter: we need collective responses. Those calling for social distancing are not taking into consideration the needs of those who are often relegated to various forms of social intelligibility. We are being told to keep six feet away from people when, in reality, many of us have already been trained to keep away from others, and here I mean Others with a capital O. As I said before, I am not prepared to transition my class into an online-only format. And frankly, sending community partners ideas about ways of students can virtually volunteer on their site not only creates more burdens for them but diminishes the importance of serving those who do not have the ability to self-isolate or to socially distance themselves from others.

So how am I restructuring my CoLab curriculum and learning activities?  Students who were serving as visiting companions to older adults are now checking up on their matches via telephone calls. Other students, if not already working as patient care advocates in our community, are providing similar essential services such as childcare and grocery delivery to homebound families with no cars.  And for those who cannot engage in local mutual aid work, I have asked them to forget about the grade that was attached to our class’ learning objectives. Instead, I have invited them to explore works by Feminists of Color and other Global south scholars since the alternatives suggested to me by mainstream community-campus engaged sources of expertise are merely busywork. I have given STEM students the task to engage with unfamiliar (to them) but nevertheless relevant sources of knowledge that will nourish their souls during these trying times. Instead of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation issue brief on health policy in the U.S., I am asking them to read Cuevas’ (2007) report on health practices in Chiapas. Their textbook chapter on community evaluation methods has been substituted with Smith, Frazier, and Smith’s (1983) Combahee River Collective Statement and Shakira Hobbs and colleagues’ (2018) article on Black women’s transnational projects in humanitarian engineering. I hope that these and the other texts that I am inviting (not requiring) my students to read will inspire them to interrogate and challenge existing ways of relating to one another as peers, as scientists, and as members of ailing communities. In writing that “[e]n unas pocas centurias, the future will belong to the mestiza” (1987, p. 102), Gloria Anzaldúa points us towards ways to use our sabidurias (wisdom) from lived experiences to collectively envision and create new and more just futures. And my students cannot begin to imagine these futures if I ask them to design some brochures in Canva.


Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands/la frontera. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute books.

Cuevas, J. H. Health and autonomy: The Case of Chiapas. Ottowa: Health Systems Knowledge Network, 2007

Hobbs, S. R., Gordon, B., Morton, E. V., & Klotz, L. (2019). Black women engineers as allies in adoption of environmental technology: Evidence from a community in Belize. Environmental Engineering Science36(8), 851-862.

Smith, B., Frazier, D., & Smith, B. (1983). The Combahee River Collective Statement. In B. Smith (Ed.) Home girls: A Black feminist anthology. (pp. 272-278). Latham, NY: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. 






    Angela Mejia

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