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Whitman College students are known for their passion for serving the Walla Walla community. But this summer, more than a dozen students were able to explore community engagement in a new, more holistic model thanks to a community-engaged learning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Kelsey MartinThe Community-Engaged Summer Research Program (CESRP) was overseen by Kelsey Martin, community learning specialist in the Student Engagement Center, and Associate Professor Matt Reynolds of the Department of Art History and Visual Culture Studies. Martin and Reynolds also co-chair the college’s Community-Engaged Learning and Research Initiative (CELRI) committee.

While COVID-19 forced many research projects or summer experiences to move online or be suspended, CESRP built the pandemic into its curricular framework. Several of the projects incorporated community response to the pandemic. Those efforts included a project with Penrose Library and Northwest Archives to document the experiences of the immigrant community during COVID-19; an examination of how the Walla Walla Mutual Aid Network came into action to meet pandemic needs; the growth of small farmers and backyard gardening; and a partnership with Population Health to see how art kits could improve the mental health of coronavirus patients.

A Different Kind of Engagement

Community-engaged learning is different from a traditional service model, where groups work more independently to meet perceived needs, often from a position of privilege. 

“At its base, community-engaged learning and research is about deconstructing knowledge hierarchies, and uplifting all forms of knowledge — especially community-produced knowledge,” Martin said. The CELRI committee is rooted in principals of reciprocity and co-creation of knowledge. “The college needs to meet the community where they’re at. The goal is the community partner and members of the college — faculty and students — create new knowledge, or analyze ‘old knowledge,’ and learn together.”

To support that effort, each CESRP group included students, faculty and community partners. Many also included Whitman staff. The grant paid salaries for the students, and also paid the nonprofit partners for their time.

“The inclusivity was very important to the committee. We wanted to make sure to uplift everyone’s knowledge. We were very explicit that everyone is paid at the same rate, to recognize everyone’s knowledge. That diverges from a service-oriented model,” Martin said.

Coronavirus and Community

For her project, senior Lizbeth Llanes Macias partnered with the Penrose Library archivist Ben Murphy, the Walla Walla Mutual Aid Network and the Socially Engaged Art Committee of the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition. Llanes Macias worked to collect stories from underrepresented voices in the Walla Walla community to capture the way that COVID-19 has impacted Hispanic and Latinx populations in particular.

“I wanted to shed light on the disparities that immigrant and marginalized communities face, while also highlighting their resiliency and vital contribution to our community,” Llanes Macias said. 

Anna Boyes ’20 and sophomore Cormac Li worked with psychology Professor Matt Prull, Becky Betts from Population Health and Augusta Sparks Farnum from First Aid Art Kits to study the impact that art can have on patient well-being.

The locally made art kits are intended to help people cope with loneliness, stress and depression, which has been on the rise during the pandemic. The student researchers collected feedback from medical care providers to see if the kits worked.

One caregiver from Providence said: “The kits helped reinforce our belief that health is more than just chronic condition care.”

Li and Boyes are volunteers at Providence, and saw firsthand how the art kits did more than just provide comfort for patients.

“It was bringing their families together, and they’re engaging more,” said Li, an international student from China. “I’m from a different country, and this was my first time witnessing how closely engaged our community can be, and how the art kits worked and how everyone is connected to each other.”

Keeping the Connections Going

Overall, Reynolds and Martin said the program was a success, and they saw students positively interacting with community members, despite the restrictions on in-person connections.

“It was challenging to meet remotely and to try to facilitate community partnerships without being able to meet in person,” Reynolds said. “But many of the students spoke highly of their experience in their research summaries and critical reflections.”

The connection between community-engaged learning and the pandemic are continuing this fall with a special topics sociology course — COVID-19 in Walla Walla 2020: Community, Place and Organizations — led by Professor Michelle Janning. 

“She is working with a number of participants from this summer's program, so it will be a good opportunity to build upon student summer research and community partner needs through a specific course,” Reynolds said.