COVID-19 can’t stop community engaged learning

June 10, 2020
Written By:
Laurel Thomas
Rose’s Bounty drive-up food pantry in Boston where Aoife Harte served when COVID-19 forced her to head home before the semester ended. Image credit: Aoife Harte

Rose’s Bounty drive-up food pantry in Boston where Aoife Harte served when COVID-19 forced her to head home before the semester ended. Image credit: Aoife Harte

How do high-touch, hands-on engagement programs continue to connect students with community organizations in a time of COVID-19?

They find other creative ways to continue to serve and offer programming, say leaders of University of Michigan organizations that semester in and semester out connect students with groups that need help, while providing students with important learning experiences.

There’s no question COVID-19 took programs and centers by surprise and created a bit of a scramble, forcing an end to some engagement activities, at least for the time being. Leaders of Project Community in the Department of Sociology; Citizen Interaction Design out of the School of Information; the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts’ Semester in Detroit; and countless other U-M programs working in partnership with the Ginsberg Center, the Detroit Center and other campus organizations had to adapt to allow continued student involvement in communities—albeit from a distance.


Rebecca D. Christensen

Rebecca D. Christensen

Rebecca Christensen, director of Project Community––a sociology department program that has its beginnings in the 1960s following President John F. Kennedy’s announcement at U-M of the Peace Corps idea––found alternative ways for students to engage.

“The simultaneous learning both within the classroom and community is what makes Project Community such a powerful and unique learning experience for students,” she said. “Although nothing can truly replace the face-to-face interactions at their community sites, I created a series of site alternative assignments so that students could still apply their sociological learning to real-life experiences throughout the rest of the semester.”

The pandemic meant that students could no longer tutor and mentor youth in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Detroit, facilitate creative writing and arts workshops to people incarcerated at the Washtenaw County Jail and Gus Harrison Prison, provide support to people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity at the Delonis Center, and meet the other needs of the project’s 17 community partners.

They were, however, able to decorate and assemble lunch bags for people facing food insecurity through Food Gatherer’s Lunches with Love program, create virtual exercise classes and social programs for elderly residents in Detroit via Google Hangout, become a pen pal for a senior citizen to help combat social isolation and loneliness, participate in food drives in their local hometowns, and make activity kits for hospitalized children through Project Sunshine, among others.

Remote engagement

For her out-of-class engagement in Project Community, LSA student Aoife Harte was responsible for doing laundry, leading meal services and delivering food to long-term residents through the Delonis Center and Food Gatherers in Ann Arbor. After students were sent home in March, remote engagement took her back to Rose’s Bounty, a food pantry near her Boston home, where she could participate in a drive-up food distribution.

“Since I was a little kid, my parents have always encouraged me to participate in opportunities that give back to our local community,” Harte said. “Normally, my mom would come with me to the food pantry but she is a nurse practitioner in the SICU at a hospital in downtown Boston and cannot volunteer due to exposure to patients with COVID-19. I am still volunteering for her, too.”

Harte also got involved with an outreach campaign her city counselor was running, calling senior neighbors to see if they needed help.

While on campus, Jolie Stocki, a recent biology, health, and society graduate who works at Michigan Medicine, helped teach 6th graders about nutrition and healthy living through Project Healthy Schools, her community site for Project Community. When COVID-19 closed schools, she opted to participate in a pen pal program through Michigan Hillel, writing a letter to an older adult at a retirement home in Ann Arbor.

Rose’s Bounty drive-up food pantry supplies. Image credit: Aoife Harte

Rose’s Bounty drive-up food pantry supplies. Image credit: Aoife Harte

“I hope that my letter was able to have an impact on my pen pal and that it helped her to feel less alone during social isolation. It’s important now more than ever to be there and support one another,” Stocki said.

“I was disappointed that we couldn’t continue the rest of the semester with PHS because I really enjoyed all of my classes and the relationships I developed with my students. I’m hoping to be able to volunteer with PHS next year.”

Journey Stockton, a sociology major, got involved with Project Sunshine, an organization that seeks to bring a sense of normalcy to hospitalized children.

Before the pandemic, she worked with the Perinatal Dialectical Behavior Therapy group at U-M Psychiatry’s Zero to Thrive program as a co-facilitator for the children’s group, supervising a group of children and engaging with them in trauma-informed play while their mothers attended the therapy sessions.

“I think it was mostly shocking for me as I watched all of my classes, activities and work be shut down over the span of two days,” Stockton said. “However, I think that this form of remote community engagement was incredibly beneficial for me, as I was able to remain engaged with the community and ‘make myself useful’ during a time in which many people feel helpless.

“I will likely never meet the children who will receive the activity kits that I’ve assembled, but I know that these kits are widely appreciated by patients, families and health care providers as they allow the child to engage with their imagination and take their mind off of their current circumstances.”

Making adjustments

Pivot is the word Feodies Shipp III, director of the Michigan Detroit Center, used to describe what his organization has been doing. The center that serves to facilitate engagement between the university and urban communities is helping the various programs and projects manage the changes.

“We have started an event assistance program to help anyone pivoting from an in-person event to a virtual event. This change often has to happen quickly, and a smooth transition is imperative to the overall event running smoothly,” he said. “We are working on transitioning our own events to virtual, starting with our Community Campus Visit. This is traditionally a day long trip from Detroit to Ann Arbor during which local nonprofit and small business leaders learn about the different opportunities available to them from the University of Michigan.”

He said a podcast also launched in April that helps keep the community connected and engaged with the center.

One longstanding U-M Detroit urban studies program known for its residential learning experience and community-based internships with organizations like Detroit Justice Center, 482Forward and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, had to do more than pivot. The Semester in Detroit Program, that began in 2009, effectively canceled its spring and summer program that allows students to live and work in Detroit.

Activity kits for hospitalized children Journey Stockton helped assemble through Project Sunshine, an international organization serving more than 150,000 pediatric patients and their families. Image credit: Journey Stockton

Activity kits for hospitalized children Journey Stockton helped assemble through Project Sunshine, an international organization serving more than 150,000 pediatric patients and their families. Image credit: Journey Stockton

Instead, the program, which is housed in the LSA Residential College but open to all U-M students, invited students to join long-time SID elective courses that were reconfigured to engage with Detroit community organizations who are responding to the urgent COVID-19 crisis in the city. Students in lecturer Diana Seales’ Community Organizing Class are connecting with Detroit organizers who work with Frontline Detroit, the General Baker Institute, Detroit Police Athletic League and the COVID-313 Community Coalition. Associate Director Craig Regester says the program looks forward to building on these new ways to engage with Detroit community organizations as they prepare for a hybrid fall 2020 program that will involve both virtual and in-person engagement.

The U-M School of Information Citizen Interaction Design program has been working with communities across Michigan since 2013 to improve city interaction with citizens through the use of information tools. From accessibility of buildings to facilitating cycling, recycling, leaf removal and pest control to communicating about park infrastructure and events, students have earned course credit working with communities to build websites, apps and other tools and strategies to help cities engage with citizens.

Scott TenBrink, civic engagement program manager and adjunct lecturer in information, said the pandemic has provided students with some interesting online-based challenges to help people without bank accounts with their stimulus checks, assist the city of Ann Arbor on strategies for reopening services closed by COVID-19, and helping the state of Michigan with a plan for absentee balloting.

All of the leaders say regardless of how the university moves forward in the fall and beyond, their programs will remain engaged and relevant.

“My hope is that Project Community will be able to go back to in-person community engagement in the future,” Christensen said. “While this is an unprecedented situation, I believe that Project Community will still be able to stay true to its values of engaging in mutually beneficial, respectful, and ethical partnerships between U-M students and community members, even if the ways in which we engage in this work may shift to more virtual, remote, or project-based ways of serving their current needs.”


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