Fitting Pegs into Squares: Communication, Relationships, and Empowerment in Campus Community Partnerships

Arthur Goldberg, Nicki Davis, Olivia Mayer, Zoe Devorkin, Erin Bartenstein, Becky McGrath

“This dance between the campus and the community sometimes feels like fitting pegs into squares and, usually, the University gets to keep the shape.” –Community Partner

At the University of Wisconsin Madison, service-learning courses are a part of many students required curriculum. Though this is not the only form that campus community partnerships can take (internships, volunteer work, and partnerships with student organizations are also prevalent and will be mentioned) examining service learning gives us insight into some of the more formal relationships between staff and community organizations. The number of service learning courses across the country has increased rapidly in the last several decades with the intention of giving students meaningful real world experience in their communities; while at the same time hoping to achieve some kind of positive or transformational change in those communities they serve. The assumption tends to be that this type of learning creates a mutually beneficial relationship between the two entities, but while there is a great deal of research on the positive implications these partnerships have on students, there is much less available outlining the long term benefits to the organizations or community (Tryon, E., & Stoecker, R. 2008).

To supplement the existing research on this topic, we began a research project with the intention of giving increased attention to the question of whether these campus and community partnerships are actually impacting inequality at the community level, empowering community members, or helping build capacity in community organizations. Surveys were sent out to a large sample of community partners through a list generated by the Morgridge Center for Public Service. After the initial survey, focus groups and interviews were conducted to address this question and the qualitative data was coded for emerging themes. This was the first time in over a decade that the University has taken the opportunity to analyze these partnerships from the perspective of community partners themselves, so it serves as a significant opportunity to change these relationships for the better. At the same time, it opened up a space where the voices of the service-learning recipients are valued over the usual suspects of University voices. Most of the community partners felt that their relationship with the University had either improved or remained static, but most still had issues within their existing partnership.

There is a great deal of research that attempts to define what an “ideal” campus community partnership looks like. (Holland and Ramaly, 1998; Liederman et. Al. 2003), and having a strong relationship is key to forming and maintaining a successful one. As most people, or any couple, can tell you communication is key to forming a strong relationship. What emerged were issues with the ways in which the relationships are being developed and maintained through channels of communication. We found that there is generally a one directional relationship, where the power to initiate and direct the partnership laid with the University, the faculty, and even to a lesser extent, the students. This came through in several areas. The first dealt with communication and specifically, the ways in which these partnerships were initiated. Many of the interviewees were already connected to the University through a formal channel and these included organizations that were physically connected to campus like the Pre-School or Astronomy lab, or some who had members that had previously worked for the University or had a spouse who worked there. All of the other organizations interviewed who had no previous relationship to the University only formed a partnership when the University reached out to them. Partners felt that there was no room or place for them to approach the University with their own problems, the community’s problems, and get a class to help them. One partner described feeling like “someone had to knock on [their] door…for an opportunity to arise.” Another partner had an idea for a service-learning project but was shut down time after time when she tried to get in touch with professors across departments. She described feeling like “someone at the University had to have a vested interest in seeing a particular project executed and then they might approach [her].” The inaccessibility of the University and the lack of resources or platforms for establishing these connections meant that, however well intentioned, the partnerships were formed with the University’s interests in mind, not necessarily the organizations. The organizations did mention appreciating being reached out to, but wished they had the opportunity to reach out as well.

Once these partnerships formed, the one directional thrust continued. Many partners spoke about miscommunications regarding hours, the project, and student expectations. They felt invested and pressured to make sure that the students had meaningful tasks, even if it wasn’t what the organization needed. One partner noted that “the partnerships work in terms of the parameters of what the students need from the experience” and described how sometimes, catering to student expectations could actually become burden on the organization, especially when they are already strapped for resources and time. “It’s a challenge for us to help them figure out how they can work with us” said one of the partners.

This one directional thrust goes beyond communication and has even broader implications when we readdress the question of whether these relationships are empowering the communities they attempt to serve. The University is an established institution with vast resources consistently coming in to the community with their expectations and assumptions. These findings give a new dimension to the research that has been done on the “charity model” of service learning (Curwood, S., Munger, F., Mitchell, T., Mackeigan, M., & Farrar, A. 2011). Students may enter wanting to make a difference and to help people, but this becomes problematic especially when, as we have seen, their goals don’t match up with the organization needs. In order for these relationships to improve and function in a mutually beneficial way, we need to instead, as one community partner put it, “engage community organizations as fellows and as a part of the balancing act.” We need to make the University more accessible to the community. We need to not only bring students into the organizations, but also bring the leaders of these organizations, and even their constituents, onto campus to shift the balance of power into a more equitable space. We need to stop trying to fit pegs into squares, and start thinking about ways to alter the shape of the University instead of consistently forcing the community partner to adjust.

We would love to hear what you think. Do you have any experience with service learning or a campus community partnership? Was the communication one directional? Let us know in the comments below!


Blouin, D. D., & Perry, E. M. (2009). Whom Does Service Learning Really Serve? Community-Based Organizations’ Perspectives on Service Learning. Teaching Sociology, 37(2), 120–135. doi:10.1177/0092055x0903700201

Einfeld, A., & Collins, D. (2008). The Relationships Between Service-Learning, Social Justice, Multicultural Competence, and Civic Engagement. Journal of College Student Development, 49(2), 95–109. doi:10.1353/csd.2008.0017

Sandy, M., & Holland, B. (2006). Different Worlds and Common Ground: Community Partner Perspectives on Campus-Community Partnerships. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 30–43. Retrieved April 13, 2016.

Boyle, M., & Silver, I. (2005). Poverty, partnerships, and privilege: Elite institutions and community empowerment. City & Community, 4(3), 233–253.

Narayanan, P. (2003, June 21). Empowerment through participation: How effective is this approach? Economic and Political Weekly, 38(25), 2484–2486.

Page, N., & Czuba, C. E. (1999, October). Empowerment: What is it? The Journal of Extension, 37(5).