Local history and residents teach leadership and community

November 22, 2016
Local history and residents teach leadership and community

That sense of place you feel when walking on Oxford’s campus comes in large part from its connection to the local community—a distinctive and defining aspect of Oxford College that dates back to the founding of both the city of Oxford and the college around the same time in the early 1800s.

Students enrolled this semester in the American Studies course “Understanding Community: Oxford Encountering Oxfordare studying the history of town and gown relations at Oxford and learning about the active role they can play in future community development and leadership efforts, both at Oxford and in the cities where they work and live after graduation. The course, being taught at a capacity of 15 in its initial offering, was created “partially to bridge the gap between community and college,” says instructor and Oxford College Chaplain Lyn Pace. “We want to create students who have a drive to be connected to community…who understand their community and how to be a participant.”

Assessing self and community
Students in the course explore topics related to three main areas of focus: understanding our bodies in community, understanding the Oxford community, and understanding leadership in community. Students read books and articles, view films, and hear from a variety of guest speakers—including the Dean of Oxford College, college staff, alumni, book authors, and city of Oxford elected and appointed officials. To complete the course, they conduct an interview with a local resident, and submit a final research project that is presented to their classmates.

Completing the StrengthsQuest exercise during the first few class sessions provided each student five personal strengths as aspects of how they live their life. StrengthsQuest is an assessment tool that helps participants identify the areas of their greatest personal strength. Typically students find that at least one of the five strengths mentioned resonates strongly with them and is something that they previously didn’t have the words to describe. Pace notes the impactful self-awareness that comes with this exercise and the goal of students’ being able to understand themselves before understanding community. “It’s important to understand who we are before we start working with community. This helps students to draw a parallel between self and community,” he says.

Exploring the city of Oxford
With a multi-week unit devoted entirely to the city of Oxford community, the cohort learned in-depth about the city in which they reside; they even had the opportunity to interview a local resident. Students wrote a paper about a specific, transcribed excerpt from the interview and explained how it related to course topics using examples from readings, speakers, and movies viewed. Fifteen local residents volunteered their time for this project and met with their assigned students at an on-campus group dinner hosted for the class and at least one additional time following that for the interview.  This interview and dinner gave students the chance to interact one-one-one with several local community members—an opportunity that many Oxford College students haven’t experienced recently.

Abigael Maldonado-Figueroa, a sophomore from Weaverville, N.C. says that getting to know the history of the Oxford community better was her favorite part of the class. “We saw how different perceptions and ideals shape the part of Oxford most students at the college don't know and actually bring it together to be a diverse and functioning city.”

For the final research project, students created a project or program that would bridge the gap between the local community and the college with the requirement that it be feasibly implemented. They chose their topic after several weeks of learning about themselves and the local community. Potential topics for the cohort’s projects include farmer’s market growth and improvement, college athletic facility collaboration and use, local educational resources for children, and a mentor/buddy program for residents and college students. Class members chose to work individually or in pairs and groups and will present the programs designed in their project to classmates during the final week of the semester.

Connecting practice and research
The general concept for the course was born from Pace’s research for the Doctor of Ministry program at Candler School of Theology, where he is in the track for church leadership and community witness, with a focus on community engagement and how the church partners with the immediate local community. During his research he spoke to Oxford staff about the Volunteer Oxford program and learned that though students serve an impressive number of hours per year, the majority of that service is in the Covington/Conyers area just outside the City of Oxford. Also gleaning from conversations with residents living in Oxford for a number of years who mentioned that they recall the college and community being more connected at one time. Through these avenues, Pace identified the issue of lack of engagement between college students and the city of Oxford and created the topics of the course as a way to inform the student population of how they can actively participate in that relationship.

“This class has showed me how the topics of leadership and community are often overlooked. Community health is linked to a multitude of other factors that are critical to our health and survival,” said Gabe Baskin, sophomore from Greenwood Village, Colo. “In a time when our government, and global leaders are often questioned, organic community growth and effective leadership is critical knowledge.”

Grants from the Oxford College Alumni Board and the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, Office of the Provost, provided funds to implement course activities and experiences including: hosting the group meal prior to the Rosenwald film screening and the dinner with local community members.

--Ansley Holder