COMPANION: From the Director of Civic Engagement

Kimberly Vrudny

Kimberly Vrudny

Given all of the transition that has occurred in civic engagement in the last year, I thought it might be helpful to rehearse the history of service-learning at the University of St. Thomas in order to situate the mission for our current work, and to point to some aspirations our Office has for the future.

History of Service Learning at St. Thomas

Knowing that curricular engagement is one key way in which undergraduate and graduate coursework can serve the University’s mission: Inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition, the University of St. Thomas educates students to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely, and work skillfully to advance the common good, the faculty senate first approved staffing for service learning in 1995. The program was located in the College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Bernie Brady (moral theology) was the first faculty director of the program. He served for two years, at which time Dr. Ellen Kennedy (marketing and sociology) worked tirelessly for its place in the structure of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1998-2006.

When Ellen Kennedy departed from the University in 2006, the Office of Service Learning was moved from the College of Arts and Sciences to Academic Affairs in order to serve all units across the University. Angela Barretta-Herman was appointed to oversee the unit. Jessica Cook was hired as a full-time interim director (2006-2007); and I served as a part-time interim faculty coordinator that year.

The same year, Dr. Rochon asked for a year-long study of comparison schools and for a proposal of models in order to structure service-learning and community engagement on campus. At the end of the year, he announced the creation of a “hub” for engagement at St. Thomas in the form of CILCE: The Center for Intercultural Learning and Community Engagement. This was a Center for co- and extra-curricular engagement. It was not clear where service-learning fit into the structure. Barb Baker was hired as program manager for service learning, which remained distinct from CILCE, and a part-time faculty director position was created to oversee service-learning. Amy Muse served in the role of faculty director for two years (2007-2009); then Kevin Sauter took the role for another two years (2009-2011).

In January of 2011, upon Angela Barretta-Herman’s retirement, Eleni Roulis was appointed Associate Vice President for academic programs and special projects, and began to oversee the service-learning program. Before the end of the year, she had eliminated the part-time faculty director position. I stepped in again, and served as interim director of service-learning on a full-time basis beginning in January 2012. The Office of Service-Learning conducted a search for a full-time director of service-learning, but the search failed and I continued in my role of interim director through the summer and into the fall.

The failed search for a director prompted consideration again of structure. In September of 2012, Dr. Sue Huber (Chief Academic Officer) announced the creation of the Center for Service-Learning and Community Engagement. This was going to merge co-curricular and curricular engagement for the first time in the University’s history. However, the Center was closed in January of 2013. Subsequently, two part-time employees were hired on a contract basis to manage the service-learning program. No faculty director was appointed.

In July of 2014, Provost Richard Plumb began to restructure offices reporting to him. Dr. Eleni Roulis returned to the College of Education, Leadership, and Counseling, and in January of 2015, the Office of Global and Local Engagement was created with Camille George named as its first Associate Vice Provost. Driven by the strategic plan’s focus on Catholic-Inspired Community Engagement and internationalization of the campus, she is overseeing an expanded vision for curricular engagement, which will include:

  • The Office of Study Abroad, directed by Sarah Spencer;
  • The Office of Civic Engagement (for more traditional service-learning programs);
  • Sustainability Initiatives, directed by Elise Amel; and exploration of
  • Ashoka (for initiatives in social innovation).

Going forward, I will be directing the Office of Civic Engagement, and Kelly Sardon-Garrity will serve as program manager for civic engagement. We will be working closely with Camille George, along with the other offices associated with GALE and with co-curricular engagement programs like VIA, Vision, and Tutor-Mentor, to advance the priorities of the University’s strategic plan.

Civic Engagement’s Mission

In the spring, Camille George appointed three “Engaged Scholars” (Tonia Bock, Michael Klein, and myself), and worked with us to craft a mission statement for civic engagement at St. Thomas:

Inspired by Catholic Social Teaching, Global and Local Engagement at the University of St. Thomas accompanies global and local partner organizations by supporting the design, implementation, and evaluation of curricular components and courses that use collaborative strategies of engagement to advance the common good.

Here, I will unpack this mission phrase by phrase:

The “why” of what we are doing is guided by the University’s Catholic mission, and in particular by principles of Catholic Social Teaching, such as:

  • Dignity of the human person
  • Concern for the common good
  • Preferential option for the poor
  • Rights of workers
  • Stewardship of creation
  • Subsidiarity

We will be informed by a philosophy of accompaniment, which is a theoretical model practiced by many humanitarian organizations throughout the world. It emphasizes the relationship that is developed when people walk together. Accompaniment does not necessarily begin with the assumption that the situations we encounter can be fixed or changed, but encourages the development of relationships in which any lasting change will be grounded. The University and the global or local community partner enter into a mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationship in order for students to contribute to something meaningful for the partnering organization even as the partnering organization agrees to assist the University and its professors in the task of education.

The Office of Civic Engagement will support course design by offering:

  • Workshops, to train faculty in best practices and ethical standards, and to encourage publication in civic engagement;
  • Placement assistance, with the CEN Network and office staff dedicated to working with faculty to help match opportunities in the community with course objectives;
  • Continuing education opportunities, to ignite imagination and secure best practices in engaged pedagogy;
  • Companionship, to all stakeholders, especially through the publiation of the Civic Engagement COMPANION newsletter to communicate the Office’s activities.

The Office supports implementation of service-learning components by offering:

  • Program Management, such as course designation process, budgetary assistance, and assessment tools;
  • Mentorships, to assist faculty in finding reciprocal relationships in the community and to support them in their work in the community;
  • Faculty Luncheons and Dinners, to provide open spaces for faculty to share experiences, insights, and challenges that they’re facing in the process of teaching service-learning courses, and to learn from practitioners in the field whose work is being recognized for excellence.

The Office supports evaluation of the program in civic engagement by offering:

  • Assessment Tools, such as pre- and post-survey instruments, and
  • Reporting Data, on the basis of the assessment instruments.

The Office of Civic Engagement will work to promote ethical, effective, and collaborative strategies of engagement to advance the common good. Engagement strategies extend beyond traditional categories like direct service to include: capacity building, economic development, public policy advocacy, participatory action research, grassroots organizing, confrontational strategies, and education. GALE will provide a broad engagement framework to address social needs without undermining critical analyses of power and injustice. In this context, meeting direct needs to sustain social goods, and changing or challenging systems in pursuit of social justice, are complementary strategies.

Aspirations for Civic Engagement at St. Thomas

Going forward, we are organizing our work around the UN Millenium Development Goals, and developed this infographic to help us visualize our work:

In what follows, I will provide some examples of work that has been done in relation to each goal, and indicate partners that are advancing this work locally and globally. This is obviously only a small representation of the work that is ongoing.

Eradicating Poverty and Hunger. Many St. Thomas courses study the correlation between poverty and hunger. In Tonia Bock’s Psychology of Adolescence course (PSYC 203), students explore the psychological changes and challenges that occur during the teen years. One of the topics will be the resilience of homeless youth. Students visit a homeless youth organization, and reflect on the specific issues that homeless youth in Minnesota face. In addition, some of our community partners include:

  • Dorothy Day Center
  • Caring and Sharing Hands
  • Catholic Charities

Closing the Achievement Gap (Equitable Access to Education). Many St. Thomas courses partner with schools in the community that focus on equitable access to higher education and closing the achievement gap. Students in Kevin Sauter and Wendy Wyatt’s Communication and Citizenship  (COJO 111) course focused on theories and principles of communication in all of its forms. The course researched how culture and power emerge in communication. St. Thomas students engaged with Christo Rey students eight times throughout the semester. Many Christo Rey students gained friendships, mentors, role models, and the confidence to go onto college. The St. Thomas students became more confident about their communication skills, began to understand how to communicate with diverse populations, and learned how to interact effectively with others. Further afield, Kevin Sauter, Debra Peterson, and Carol Bruess (COJO) have an ongoing relationship with Ke Kola Ni’lhau O Kekaha School which serves underprivileged students in Hawaii. Some of our local community partners in educational access include:

  • Cristo Rey Jesuit High School
  • College Prep Elementary School
  • Wellstone International High School

Improving Public Health. Many St. Thomas courses focus on issues in public health. In 2006, St. Thomas won a grant to develop "HIV/AIDS Initiatives," which to date has involved 1,500 students studying public health in relation to fourteen different disciplines in 73 sections of 22 different courses taught by 21 faculty. Students in Paola Ehrmantraut's Spanish English Translation (SPAN 490) class, for example, translated documents from English to Spanish pro bono for Open Arms of Minnesota. This organization delivers meals to people who are living with HIV/AIDS and other life limiting illnesses. St. Thomas students have traveled to South Africa with me in 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2015 to study the effects of apartheid on public health. We have partnered with a community center in Guguletu, a township outside of Cape Town. The Center provides a range of services to its community experiencing high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates. Over three years, students in in Barbara Gorski’s Business 200 courses raised a total of $24,000 that enabled students in my course to distribute parcels of food to families affected by HIV/AIDS in South Africa; last year, we raised $10,000 for scholarships that will be distributed in collaboration with a non-profit organization, These Numbers Have Faces, to provide scholarships for students from economic underprivilege to attend institutions of higher education in South Africa. Some of our community partners locally that work to improve public health include:

  • Open Arms of Minnesota
  • Clare Housing
  • Minnesota AIDS Project

Promoting Human Rights. Many St. Thomas courses focus on issues related to human rights. Students in Nekima Levy-Pound’s Community Justice Project (LAWS 941, LAWS 944) focus on bridge-building with community stakeholders and problem-solving in distressed communities. Students gained valuable experience in advocacy, legal research,  writing, litigation, and outreach. A group of faculty are also starting a chapter of “the FREE project” on campus: Freedom. Restoration. Emancipation. Empowerment. The organization investigates and challenges modern forms of slavery. Some of our community partners in the area of promotion of human rights include:

  • Center for Victims of Torture
  • Breaking Free
  • American Refugee Committee

Promoting Racial Equality. Many St. Thomas courses involve discussion related to racial equality. Students in Lucia Pawlowski’s Analytical and Persuasive Writing (ENG 304) worked with Domestic Abuse Partnership, Legal Rights Center, Aeon, or the Aliveness Project. The students conducted interviews and wrote profiles for websites and newsletters. They also wrote stories based on the interviews, or for online blogs. Throughout the service-learning component, the students interrogated their own class and privilege, but also gained interpersonal skills by working with the community partners. Some of our community partners include:

  • Community Justice Project
  • Brotherhood, Inc.

Promoting Gender Equality. Many St. Thomas courses examine questions related to gender equality. Students in Susan Myers’ Women in the Early Church (THEO 431) work with a local women’s organization (the Jeremiah Program) to compare the situations of modern women with those of ancient women about whom they read. Students also reflect on the ways in which women—both ancient and modern—are empowered and silenced. Dr. Len Jennings, in professional psychology, has students participating in professional practice in Singapore. The course consisted of joint experiential learning exercises with Singaporean counseling students as well as site visits illuminating the various ways mental health needs are addressed in Singapore. In addition, the course had a service-learning component in which St. Thomas students conducted psycho-educational presentations and group work with abused teen girls living in a residential treatment center. Some of our community partners include:

  • The Jeremiah Program
  • Women's Advocates
  • Women Venture

Partnering for Global Development. Many St. Thomas faculty are working to promote global development in their courses. Several faculty in the School of Engineering, for example, have transformed the Senior Design Clinic (ENGR 480-481) to incorporate cutting edge international projects, including the development of:

  • Low-powered cooling designs, and shea butter production designs, and seed potato storage in Mali;
  • Produce drying designs, and manual shredding designs in Haiti and St. Vincent;
  • Alternative energy designs in Uganda;
  • Solar water pasteurization in Kenya.


Since we began the course designation process in 2008, more than 7,300 students have enrolled in courses with a designated service-learning component. 1,500 of these students participated through the University’s HIV/AIDS Initiatives; 2,500 additional students participated through Business 200, which was designated as a service-learning course beginning in 2012. 88 faculty have participated since we started designating classes in 2008, teaching 345 sections of classes representing 32 disciplines.


Even as we point to the future and the University’s desire to engage locally and globally in graduate and undergraduate programs as well as in all colleges throughout the university, I want to acknowledge the wonderful work that faculty have done in the last twenty years.

I look forward to working with you as we write the next chapter of civic engagement at St. Thomas.

Dr. Kimberly Vrudny is the director of civic engagement for the Center for Local and Global Engagement.

"COMPANION" is a newsletter of the Center for Local and Global Engagement. Subscribe here.