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Celebrating 25 years of the Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship

Posted October 14, 2021

ICES 25 Years

By Tessa Schmitz
Student Writer, Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship

This is the first in a two-part reflection series written to celebrate 25 years since the establishment of the Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship


Over the past 25 years, the Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship (ICES) has been a committed presence and support to Metropolitan State and the communities that surround us. The institute’s integral mission is to provide resources to connect student learning and faculty scholarship with community knowledge and expertise through community-engaged coursework, academic internships, engaged scholarship, and public programming. And each year ICES has gained significant momentum, evolving and expanding to reach more students and fulfill the university’s vision of an unwavering commitment to civic engagement.

From the premier partnership with Dayton’s Bluff Elementary School in 1992 to the ongoing transformative work done through the anchor mission initiative community engagement has been and remains a cornerstone of the university’s academic mission. As we reflect on the history and accomplishments of ICES for its 25th anniversary, we can, too, begin to explore what’s next for our communities.    

Foundational documents from 1971–1972, known at the time as Prospectus, contain original tenets issued by Metropolitan State leaders to establish the university’s mission. From the beginning, the goals of the university included aspirations for urban engagement and community involvement. An education at Metro State was designed to be “pro-city,” whereas, according to the Prospectus, many universities at the time were fundamentally “anti-city.” To be pro-city meant to focus on the needs of the city and provide students with resources to function and live within the city. The university pledged itself to collaborate with community partners in implementing educational programs for citizens, developing leaders and policies that “are indigenous to the community but not parochial.” 

To enact this commitment, the university developed a general academic internship program that allowed students to invest in the city. There were two categories of internships: traditional (associated with businesses) and group. The group internships followed a common framework with similar learning objectives, achievement goals, and communal reflection and analysis.  

The original tenets of the university thus planted seeds for community involvement and intercultural learning. In 1987, Metropolitan State initiated its Volunteer Services Program, allowing interested students to complete degree programs with an emphasis in volunteer administration. The movement toward community-based learning began to crystallize into a more comprehensive approach to community involvement.

In 1992, a five-member team (consisting of former university President Tobin Barrozo and faculty members Marilyn Vigil, Jane Rauenhorst, Steve Ludin, and Tom O’Connell) participated in the Campus Compact Institute on Integrating Service with Academic Study at Stanford University. From that experience the group constructed a proposal to further implement community-based learning in the university’s curriculum. 

One member, Tom O’Connell, had worked directly with community development and took seriously the idea that “knowledge could be demonstrated through experiential learning.” In the proposal, O’Connell, along with the other members, orchestrated two desired outcomes:

  1. Significantly increase community involvement opportunities for students through community service, social engagement, or public affairs projects—coupled with reflection and analysis of participation.
  2. Create joint ventures with surrounding communities by formulating articulated relationships in which students, faculty, and staff are engaged with communities in activities that advance community agendas.   

These ideals remained the focus at Metropolitan State when it finally became a campus with walls later that year, when it established its primary, permanent campus on Dayton’s Bluff. O’Connell, along with Susan Spring Shumer—who had come to Metro State from Augsburg College, where great emphasis was placed on service learning—brought about a deep transformational process to the institution. Their idea seemed simple: expand upon the original internship program to establish a community-engaged learning center. To implement this, the two worked with Metro’s College of Professional and Community Studies to form partnerships with Saint Paul’s East Side. 

Greg Mellas, the Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship’s current director, notes that although “the Twin Cities is saturated with higher ed, we are the only university on the East Side.” Those partnerships, then as now, were crucial to providing resources in a location that faces ongoing disinvestment, creating inequitable outcomes in literacy, community health, and youth education. 

In 1992, the implementation team collaborated with Dayton's Bluff Elementary School—located on the East Side—to expand upon their community-focused learning. O’Connell reflects that “the school had some difficulty developing relationships [with their students] that could support students and families sustainably.” The academic challenges impacted other areas of life: employment, healthcare, and housing. “This created instability for the families.” 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) introduced an initiative that focused on developing communities through collaborations with universities. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs was an early beneficiary of the federal funding. “Housing became a key issue,” O’Connell said, addressing the connection between housing and education, an ever-present systemic problem that plagues low income areas. “If you’re going to deal with issues of family, and if they don’t have secure housing, they’ll move and won’t have the same teachers, {which} disrupts the learning experience. 

 As students and their families described harsh living conditions within affordable housing units, O’Connell, having worked with tenants in the past, supported these families to advocate for better conditions. This was the community engagement that O’Connell was eager to expand for the university: “an ongoing, long-term mutually negotiated relationship” that extended beyond traditional volunteering.

 A year later, students from Metro were placed in internships with Dayton’s Bluff Elementary, receiving training on literacy and story sharing processes from the Minnesota Humanities Commission. As time went on, more and more opportunities between the university and the elementary school surfaced. For instance, Metro student interns developed one-to-one mentoring relationships with students from the elementary school through story sharing and reading. The children, too, received training at Metro to become peer conflict mediators, gaining life-long conflict resolution and problem-solving skills. 

 The Dayton Bluff partnership flourished, providing university students with learning opportunities in the areas of literacy, urban education, and family issues, while simultaneously providing service to the children and families of the elementary school. (The success of these programs was bolstered through external funding from the U.S. Department of Education, the Higher Education Coordinating Board, and Corporation for National Service through MN Campus Compact and the Minnesota Humanities Commission.)

The partnership proved that Metro State had the capacity to create communal change, and in 1994 the institution received a three-year grant from the Kellogg Foundation. During these three years, 22 partnerships were established and funded. Metro State maintained its commitment to aiding the East Side, and in 1996 became one of four Minnesota Campus Compact’s “Campus-Community Collaborative Models,” receiving a grant to assist in strengthening ties to the community. 

With successful branches in both community development and internship programs, it became evident to the university that the two areas could merge together to further implement Metro’s mission. In 1996, the partnership program and the internship program combined, forming Metro State’s Center for Community-Based Learning (CCBL). This connection served as a catalyst in implementing new ideas and focusing on three major streams of activity: youth outreach, academic internships, and community development.

By the early 2000s, the university reframed its thinking with regard to community development, expanding focus on civic engagement and the education of students through actively engaged citizenship. This shift allowed the Center for Community-Based Learning to align its work with the core academic mission of the university, gaining the institutional support and financial sustainability which made the Center’s vision fully possible. With this foundation, programs like Project SHINE and the American Democracy Project launched and flourished.

In a second installment of the ICES Anniversary series, we will further explore these programs, along with the other initiatives and accomplishments that have distinguished the past 25 years.