Community Engagement Professionals in the Circle of Service-Learning

and the Greater Civic Enterprise

Lina D. Dostilio, Duquesne University

Mandi McReynolds, Drake University

In the 20 years since Zlotkowski’s (1995) article “Does Service-Learning Have a Future?” the circle of service-learning (SL) has grown in ways that deserve attention. We are particularly interested in an expanded notion of who is considered a full collaborator in the development of community-campus engagement and a broadened scope of practice that embraces SL but locates it within the greater civic enterprise. As for who is considered a legitimate collaborator, SL has moved beyond positioning faculty and community partners as its two primary drivers and now encompasses an expanded circle that includes a wider range of collaborators (see Hicks, Seymour, & Puppo in this collection of essays). For example, Zlotkowski, Longo, and Williams (2006) advocate for students to be considered as “colleagues”; Stoecker, Tryon, and Hilgendorf (2009) amplify the role and voice of community partners; and Bringle, Clayton, and Price (2009) organize the stakeholders of service-learning and community engagement in a model called SOFAR, which defines Students, community Organization staff, Faculty, Administrators on campus, and community Residents all as full partners. With regard to a broadened scope of practice, SL is increasingly positioned as one of an array of strategies campuses employ in a holistic approach to meeting the civic, public service, and economic development aspects of their institutional missions, visions, and values (see Saltmarsh, Janke, & Clayton in this collection of essays).

These two concerns — positioning a broader set of constituents in a democratically-engaged enterprise and locating SL within a larger ecosystem of community-campus engagement efforts — mirror a circle’s geometry: the points of a circle are all placed in a plane equidistant to the center. Yet, within these expanded notions of collaborators and broadened scope of practice, very little attention has been paid to community engagement professionals (CEPs) in terms of how we enrich and shape engagement practice or how we become change agents within higher education. A burgeoning line of inquiry seeks to promote and refine how we understand the CEP as part of the circle of SL and civic engagement.

Community Engagement Professionals (CEPs)

We see Community Engagement Professionals (Dostilio, forthcoming; Jacoby & Mutascio, 2010; McReynolds & Shields, 2015) as vital to SL and the broader practices of civic engagement. CEPs are seen primarily as supportive staff who facilitate the connectivity between points within and around the circle. However, looking closely at the myriad ways CEPs promote, complicate, and sustain engagement reveals that we also influence who is part of the circle; encourage the circle to be centered on and uphold civic ideals; strengthen the circle through providing professional development, promoting promising practices, and holding collaborators and institutions accountable; orient the circle toward the future by keeping abreast of trends and pushing beyond the current edges of practice; and hold a mirror to the circle through critical reflection on practice. We believe that for community-campus engagement to flourish, we must acknowledge, clarify, and develop the role of CEPs.

According to Campus Compact’s 2014 Annual Survey, nearly 100% of respondents —a total of 423 institutions—reported having an office or center to coordinate community engagement efforts, with the majority being led at the director level; in contrast, in 1986, only 22 institutions had a paid director or staff member. In Welch and Saltmarsh’s (2013) review of engagement centers across institutions that held the Carnegie Foundation’s Community Engagement Classification, 91% of survey respondents indicated their centers had full-time administrative leadership. As we consider the significance of this growth, two ideas emerge regarding the role of CEPs in the future of SL and civic engagement: (a) CEPs, particularly those who cultivate a practitioner-scholar identity, complicate and enrich extant disciplinary approaches to SL, and (b) CEPs play a central role in connecting SL courses to one another and to larger institutional civic efforts and, in doing so, amplify the institution’s civic commitments.

Complicating Disciplinary and Epistemological Approaches to Service-Learning and Civic Engagement

Similar to most faculty, CEPs are grounded in disciplinary training (Dostilio, forthcoming), and in many cases we also have interdisciplinary preparation. For example, one of the authors, Lina, received her bachelor’s degree in sociology, followed by graduate work in community mental health counseling, and a doctorate in educational leadership. The social theories Lina learned as an undergraduate structure her thinking and approach to engagement: she thinks systemically, organizes her engagement work through a lens of social problems, and is guided heavily by a concern with privilege, power, and social and political capital. She utilizes counseling skills of group facilitation, clarification of individuals’ needs and agendas, empathetic listening, and specialized attention to group process to guide her practice and to guide others as they navigate the intersections and boundaries of community and campus interests. Her graduate work in educational leadership leads her to apply learning theory to program, faculty, and student development. By reflectively using her disciplinary training to inform practice, she has honed her capacity to identify the ways her disciplinary lenses may be applied to — and influence — approaches to SL and civic engagement and to determine when those disciplinary lenses may be limiting or restrictive when applied to a civic concern. This reflective disciplinary practice helps Lina, and other CEPs like her, be conversant with faculty peers and quickly see how faculty members’ respective disciplines might connect with and contribute to civic issues.

However, unlike most faculty who are disciplinary specialists, CEPs also have a body of community-practice knowledge that spans any one discipline and incorporates a variety of methods such as community organizing and democratic communication. We are invested in facilitating others’ involvement in community-campus engagement by promoting students’ civic development, cultivating community collaborators, guiding faculty in course and participatory research design, or directing campus-wide programs. In taking a facilitative position, our area of specialty is the practice of civic engagement itself, with its associated knowledge, skills, competencies, and perspectives. Developing and drawing on such capacities, rather than working from within only one disciplinary framework, CEPs are well positioned to complicate and enrich attempts to address public problems from uni-disciplinary and solely academic epistemologies. From our institutional vantage point and skill base, CEPs are able to build and sustain multidisciplinary partnerships by inviting contributors across disciplines and sectors and by helping partners navigate the structures of higher education institutions to secure legitimacy and resources for their work.

A CEP’s unique contribution lies in marrying a disciplinarily-framed conversation with our community-practice knowledge as experienced professionals who work collaboratively across disciplines and across knowledge traditions, traversing the actual and perceived boundaries of community and campus. It is imperative for CEPs to embrace, clarify, and interrogate our own disciplinary training and, in doing so, become able to guide faculty to discover the link between their disciplines and civic issues. We must also challenge any tendencies toward recession into disciplinary silos when confronted with civic challenges. This ability — to critically interrogate both the practice and the knowledge that informs engagement — is vital and is expressed with the term practitioner-scholarship. As CEPs make visible our contributions to the practice of engagement, our theory-based practices and full participation in scholarship will move us further into an identity and capacity as practitioner-scholars. “Practitioner-scholars have the unique ability to perceive deficiencies in current theories and practices. Their research and best pedagogical knowledge are needed to challenge and drive the development of a stronger academy.” (McReynolds, 2015b, 3 – 4). As such, CEPs have much to contribute by way of complicating the academy’s disciplinary and epistemological approaches to civic issues and public problem-solving.


Connecting Service-Learning to Larger Institutional Civic Commitments

Zlotkowski raises a concern that if we retain a “hoops mentality” (1995, p. 129) with unreasonable expectations of the ideological standards and best practice structures that govern SL, either faculty will be scared away from the pedagogy or it will coalesce into an academic specialty more concerned with personal or civic growth than disciplinary learning. This is distinctly possible if we insist on endowing single SL courses with the responsibility for producing students who are fully civically oriented and for fully addressing multifaceted issues such as hunger. We believe civic development is a life-long process, community issues are multifaceted in their origins and resolutions, and a uni-disciplinary instance of SL cannot by itself meaningfully address a public problem. CEPs can alleviate the unrealistic pressure placed on individual SL courses (and by association the faculty who teach them) in two ways: (a) connecting SL courses focused on the same civic issue or geographic community to one another and (b) integrating SL efforts into the larger palette of institutional civic initiatives. Having a campus-wide vantage point enables CEPs to identify and bring together multiple efforts focused on the same public problem or seeking similar civic outcomes for students.

It is immensely freeing to suggest an individual SL course need only offer one iteration of students’ civic development or only address an aspect of a problem area. It fosters a spirit of intellectual humility and the perspective that we are all part of a much larger ecosystem of knowledge generation. CEPs exhibit strategic institutional leadership when we connect the dots between distinct activities and the larger set of institutional efforts to graduate engaged citizens, attract and retain civically committed faculty, and contribute knowledge and collaborators to the coalitions seeking to address pressing social and environmental concerns. The implication for CEPs is to think systemically and see our work as promoting the larger civic purpose of higher education. Though not every CEP is predisposed to being a connector, the role of the CEP in a multi-disciplinary and multi-strategic institution is to amplify and synthesize various efforts, making this a crucial quality for us all to develop.


CEPs play critical roles in sustaining and pushing forward SL practice. It behooves us to develop within the community of CEPs a shared commitment to embracing our identities as practitioner-scholars, to clarify and leverage our respective disciplinary training, to develop systemic thinking, and to act as connectors across our institutions and beyond. We suggest this, not as a dictum to the SL and civic engagement movement, but as a charge to CEPs as a group. Seeing and positioning ourselves as practitioner-scholars requires developing a curiosity about our own work and that of our institution, such that we critically question how it is best conducted and how it can be continuously improved. Clarifying and leveraging our disciplinary training necessitates a revisiting of the lenses that inform how we make sense of civic collaborations and the public problems they seek to address. It also means recognizing the limitations of disciplines and how they may unnecessarily bound our approaches to civic engagement. Developing systemic thinking is a habit of mind that requires critical reflection and institutional (and community) mentors who can help us see our efforts in the context of the larger ecosystems in which they occur. Acting as connectors between projects, people, ideas, priorities, and trends requires us to be anchored in our local context while reading scholarship about engagement and participating in professional associations concerned with civic engagement. By doing so we are simultaneously active citizens of our institutions, of the communities in which we work, and of the larger scholarly field of civic engagement practice.

A body of inquiry around CEPs is emerging. Initially represented within practice literature (e.g., Jacoby & Mustascio, 2010), testimonials of experience (e.g., Bartha et al., 2013), and professional development programming (e.g., Campus Compact; Engagement Scholarship Consortium), CEPs are just now being systematically investigated as a distinct stakeholder within community-campus engagement (see Dostilio, forthcoming for a more comprehensive description). Stemming from interest in the roles CEPs take and the preparation we bring to our work, Campus Compact has initiated a research project to empirically investigate questions related to CEP roles, competencies, and professional development desires. Such lines of inquiry are critical to leverage the full complement of factors that will drive engagement practice and theory forward. It is time for CEPs to assume leadership in the research about CEPs and to embrace our roles as field contributors (Degraaf & Hirt, 2015). We must take it upon ourselves to investigate the competencies, dispositions, preparation, and unique contributions of CEPs and to help the next generation of CEPs develop into the institutional strategic leaders and practitioner-scholars we advocate. It is “time to dive deep and grow the profession” (McReynolds, 2015a).



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LINA D. DOSTILIO ( directs the Center for Community-Engaged Teaching and Research at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania. In this capacity, she facilitates teaching and research collaborations that involve university stakeholders in public problem solving across an array of social and environmental issues. Lina also served as Chair of the Board of Directors of the International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement and is the lead scholar on  Campus Compact’s Research Project on the Community Engagement Professional.

MANDI McREYNOLDS ( is an author, educator, and scholar in SL and civic engagement. She is co-editor of Diving Deep in Community Engagement: A Model for Professional Development and has spent her career building community engagement and leadership programs at three different institutions. Mandi was honored with the 2011 Iowa Campus Compact Engaged Staff Award and was named to the Des Moines Business Record 2015 Forty Under 40.

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