Learn, act, transform — together.

Those four simple words reflect a new vision for the future of community engagement at William & Mary following a comprehensive and collaborative review.

The resulting changes range from a new name for the Office of Community Engagement – now W&M Civic & Community Engagement – to innovative ways for students to contribute to community-driven change while also advancing their learning. 

The transformation comes three decades after William & Mary initially established what was then called the Office of Student Volunteer Services. Service is now part of the university’s core values, and democracy is among the cornerstone initiatives of its Vision 2026 strategic plan, along with water, careers and data.

“We believe this update honors and sustains the relationships, lessons learned and outcomes of the last 30 years, and we are excited for the way it inspires us to think, act and dream differently — together,” the Civic & Community Engagement team said in a letter to community partners. 

An opportunity and need for change

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Melody Porter, director of civic & community engagement, and her team noticed major shifts in how community organizations were operating and how students were engaging in service.

For instance, nonprofits experienced a significant amount of staff turnover and burnout, and their usual pools of volunteers were drying up. Students were unable to serve in person as they once did because of social distancing, and they became increasingly interested in activism in response to such catalysts as the murder of George Floyd. 

After attending a virtual workshop on transformational community partnerships, Porter realized that many of her office’s partnerships had become “very transactional.”

“It was like, how can we meet this immediate need?” she said. “It wasn’t, how can we talk together about things that matter and generate something bigger — more resources or more ideas? How can we all be changed in the process?”

Porter knew it was time for a revamp.

“I realized, we can learn from this and grow from this and adapt, or we can try to go back to things as they were and they’re not going to work,” she said.

Gathering feedback

To begin what would be a “year of transformation” between 2022 and 2023, the Civic & Community Engagement team knew they needed to hear from their largest constituent groups: students and community organizations. 

Before the pandemic, the office regularly held in-person meetings with community partners. The team decided to relaunch those meetings but with a focus on being transformational, looking at how the partnerships might expand and what new resources could be identified. They also held numerous one-on-one meetings.

From community partners, the Civic & Community Engagement team heard, “we’re committed, and we’re so tired,” said Porter. They needed volunteers, but they also were looking for help in developing systems to manage those volunteers. They were also looking for help that could be provided virtually.

To hear from students, Civic & Community Engagement utilized the Pathways for Public Service and Civic Engagement survey to ask about ways they have been involved in the community and how they would like to be. The office also held meetings with students and used other, creative means of gathering feedback. 

Two people sit in chairs in front of a wall that says "Learn, act, transform, together."
Civic & Community Engagement sought feedback from students and community partners to develop its new mission and vision. (Photo by Elizabeth Miller)

One of the findings was that while students identified advocacy as the most effective and important pathway for policy change, they have more experience with direct service and are more willing to participate in it, said Elizabeth Miller, associate director of civic & community engagement.

However, when students began returning to campus after the pandemic, the Civic & Community Engagement team found that there was a “real sense of overwhelm and exhaustion” among them, said Miller. As a result, they saw a significant decline in direct service and program participation. 

That may have to do with changes in how students experience connection and build relationships following the pandemic, Miller said. They are “hungry for being in community” with one another, but rusty on skills required to build that community.

In addition to talking with students and community partners, Civic & Community Engagement also engaged an external expert, conferred with colleagues at other universities and reviewed recent research on community engagement to help guide them throughout the transformation process.

“That’s when it went from we want to look at students and we want to look at partners to realizing we’re going to need to look at everything,” said Porter.

New and innovative approaches

That comprehensive review resulted in the new name for the office plus a new mission and vision:

“Together with members of William & Mary and our broader communities, we cultivate equitable and transformational relationships, and provide programming and resources for students to become lifelong community-centered leaders.

Through our work, we envision a just and sustainable world, thriving communities, and a campus that embraces lifelong civic learning and action.

They also developed a set of new values, commitments and strategies and 10 new civic learning and action goals for students centered on ways of being, thinking and taking action.

The name change not only signifies a fresh start for the office, it also reflects William & Mary’s commitment to advancing democratic values, including work around student voting, said Porter. That work has been underway for years, earning the university such accolades as being named a top Voter Engaged Campus and Voter Friendly Campus.  

As a result of the transformation, community partners are being provided additional opportunities to collaborate and explore new ideas, including spring gathering and fall breakfast events – all of which have been full to capacity. The Civic & Community Engagement team also identified three initial partnership priorities, including increasing funding for internships with local organizations, expanding Williamsburg Engagement opportunities and strengthening the investment in youth development and education equity.

For students, the transformation has brought about new ways to connect to one another and community partners, including internship and other applied learning opportunities. For instance, four students currently partnered with community organizations like Grove Christian Outreach and the Salvation Army through December to help identify and develop ways to increase volunteer engagement.

They will create outreach materials, talk to student organizations about service opportunities and help staff get trained on use of the W&M GivePulse platform where people can sign up to volunteer.

“The students are getting this great project management experience, and the partners are getting that little spark so that next year, they’re just duplicating the plan instead of starting from scratch,” said Miller.

Through Community-Capacity Internships, students are able to practice a range of civic and career skills while completing capacity-building projects identified by community organizations. One recent internship with Child Development Resources allowed a student to conduct research on the effects of screen time on children.

“That project did not exist before we started talking about different ways students can engage and us wanting to have creative ideas, wanting to do things differently,” said Miller.

As a result, the office has seen a spike in interest in internship opportunities. In the past two years, Civic & Community Engagement has been able to fund less than 40% of projects submitted by community partners. Interest from students is even greater, with 500 applications submitted for only 35 internships between spring 2022 and summer 2024.

One new opportunity coming soon for students and community members is grant money from AmeriCorps that will support volunteers to work in education-related roles with such agencies as York County Head Start and the Williamsburg, James City County Community Action Agency.

But the Civic & Community Engagement transformation has not only provided new opportunities for students and community members; it has resulted in new ways for faculty and staff to work on community engagement projects as well. The office leads a W&M Community Engaged Accelerator that is now hosting its second cohort. The second cohort recently presented its projects during a Community Partners Workshop in mid-June.

The Civic & Community Engagement team also hopes to get more alumni involved. 

“We know that there are folks out there who are doing this kind of work in their businesses, their government jobs, their families, their civic associations, and would be excited to hear about this, too,” said Porter. “What I would like is to keep learning about how to do this kind of work well, doing it in true partnership”

Porter and Miller hope that their office’s transformation continues inspiring people to think of new ways to “learn, act, transform – together.”

“The piece that is scary about transformation is you don’t know what you’re gonna get, what’s gonna come out of that chrysalis,” said Miller. “But we want to stay in that flow of learning from and with each other.”

, Senior Associate Director of University News