Examining the relationship between community engagement and graduate student preparation // written by: April Perry, Christopher Ray and Lane Perry

April Perry
Western Carolina University

Christopher Ray
Western Carolina University

Lane Perry
Western Carolina University


This article investigates the correlation between the concepts of community engagement and graduate student populations. In particular, a focus is on analyzing extant literature highlighting the concept of community engagement within higher education and examining the relationship between community engaged professionals and postmodern professionals. Furthermore, this work serves as a call to action for institutions of higher education to invest in and support the creation of graduate community engagement learning initiatives through an intentional, evidence-based approach.

This analysis of literature and research serves as an effort to examine the connection between the concepts of community engagement and graduate student populations. As such, the information presented will assist in determining if community engagement represents an appropriate vehicle to promote graduate student success and enhance the level of professionalism and preparation among such students. In order to examine the relationship between these two topics, this article will address the concept of community engagement within higher education and the benefits associated with such a practice. Additionally, this article will showcase the relationship between community engaged professionals and postmodern professionals. Lastly, this article will connect the two concepts and the benefits that prove to be the result of their pairing.

Literature Review

In order to effectively discuss community engagement within the realm of higher education, it is necessary to define community engagement as it relates to higher education. From a theoretical standpoint, the concept of community engagement, as defined by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, refers to:

“The collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in the context of partnership and reciprocity. The purpose of community engagement is the partnership of college and university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research, and creative activity; enhance curriculum, teaching and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address critical societal issues; and contribute to the public good” (Carnegie Community Engagement Classification Description, n.d.).

Across higher education institutions, community engagement initiatives have been implemented through many different educational outlets. From the creation of first-year learning communities devoted to connecting community service to academic learning (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996) to assisting in the development of reciprocal partnerships between external stakeholders (Bringle & Hatcher, 2009), each of these concepts help illustrate the wide array of possibilities for learners with regard to community engagement. For the purpose of specificity, this article will analyze community engagement through the lens of service-learning. Describing service-learning as it relates to community engagement, Kuh (2008) provided sound reasoning for this practice within his seminal work related to high-impact practices within higher education that promote increased retention and engagement rates among learners. Within his research, Kuh (2008) paired service and community-based learning together to represent one of the foundational pillars of high-impact educational practices. These researchers help describe service-learning within the realm of higher education; however, in order to better connect this practice with graduate students, it is necessary to discuss the associated benefits directly.

As a whole, students who participate in community engagement practices not only contribute in a meaningful manner within their respective communities, but they also gain access to a plethora of benefits. Personal growth (Gallini & Moely, 2003), moral development (Boss, 1994), engagement (Perry, 2011), and enhancement of academic content (Markus, Howard, & King, 1993) represent just some of the benefits related to this practice. In addition to this, Ehrlich (2005) mentions that learners who participate in community engagement initiatives practice skills needed for effective leadership, further develop their sense of civic responsibility, and continue the development of an inquiring and imaginative mind. Community engagement initiatives also allow learners the opportunity to connect service within a respective community to their own specific academic area of interest. It should be noted that the primary populations of most of the past studies investigating the impacts of service-learning have been focused on undergraduate students.

For example, Leung et al. (2012) describe how nursing students were able to increase their content knowledge, as well as improve upon their attitudes and abilities, when working with older adults as a result of their involvement in a 10-week volunteer practicum with aged adults. Similarly, students enrolled in the University of Saskatchewan were able to improve upon their social accountability skills as a result of their involvement within an opportunity entitled “Making the Links” (Meili, Fuller, & Lydiate, 2011). This unique certificate program combined academic courses with service-learning focused on providing members of an underserved, urban community with medical care and treatment. 

Providing context for the topic of community engagement and the beneficial outcomes linked with its practice reveals the skills that graduate students would also be able to gain by participating in such a practice. In addition, an analysis of the literature reveals a significant gap in the area of graduate student community engagement. One notable source (Fehr, Minty, Racey, Bettger, & Newton, 2014) provides context for an initiative specifically tailored for graduate students and helps to provide a transferable approach for other institutions of higher education.  

Within their research, Fehr et al. (2014) specifically address the educational and practical benefits of graduate student community engagement. More specifically, the researchers described an initiative related to the FoodUCation program, which is focused on educating young learners about healthy eating habits and how such habits ultimately lead to a healthy lifestyle. In addition, this program was designed as a for-credit, graduate course and was implemented within a local elementary school that served as one of the community partners for the university.  

Through the use of a mixed-methods approach, the authors were able to identify that the graduate students who participated in this project were able to practice and further develop skills vital for their intended vocations. Furthermore, the positive feedback mentioned by the participants led to the inclusion of this and similar practices within other graduate courses. The research of Fehr et al. (2014) not only serves as an example for graduate student engagement practices, but it also showcases the effectiveness of such practices. More importantly, this work represents one of the few discussions linking the concepts of community engagement and graduate students together, which helps illustrate a significant gap in the research that supports the connection between these two topics. 

Linking Graduate Community Engagement with the Postmodern Profession 

The work of Dostilio (2017) serves as a bridge for connecting graduate community engagement with postmodern professions, while also highlighting how community engagement allows for the development of community engagement professionals (Dostilio, 2017; Dostilio & McReynolds, 2015; Jacoby & Mutascio, 2010; McReynolds & Shields, 2015). The importance of including community engagement initiatives in the educational experience of learners is emphasized within Dostilio and Perry’s (2015) work related to community engagement professionals as leaders. More specifically, this research presents a review of extant community-university engagement practice literature that highlights the competencies and attributes gained by individuals who are identified as being community engaged professionals. It is important to note that this could logically be applied to the benefits gained by graduate students through their involvement with community engagement initiatives. Essentially, the competencies and attributes identified Dostilio and her co-authors (2017), are considered to be the skill-set in which the current and future higher education environments call upon.

Further description of the key benefits for graduate students as a result of their engagement in such activities, Dostilio and Perry (2017) make reference to four distinct attributes gained by community engaged professionals that prove to be of benefit within any occupational path. First is the concept of developing a body of knowledge and practice. One of the primary factors that distinguish graduate level community engagement practices from undergraduate practices relates to the incorporation of extant literature and theory to provide foundational evidence for such students showcasing the need for such a practice. In addition, the incorporation of theory will allow graduate students the opportunity to align with a new body of knowledge that would provide them with a solid basis for including community engagement practices within the theory aligned with their own occupational path. 

A second attribute highlighted within the work of Dostilio and Perry (2017) refers to the creation of a practitioner-scholar community. In describing this concept, the authors refer to a practitioner-scholar community as a group of individuals who are able to blend sophisticated practice and theory. Furthermore, the ability to align practice with theory promotes the development of practitioner scholars, and according to the researchers, this refers to an individual who demonstrates systematic inquiry and reflective practice, which is essential within any post-secondary profession. Providing graduate students with an opportunity to engage in practices that help them develop as effective practitioner-scholars, and share their own unique knowledge and identity will also help in the development of a professional epistemology among such individuals. 

Creating a shared professional identity, the third attribute identified by Dostilio and Perry (2017) and Palonen, Boshuizen, and Lehtinen (2014), refers to this as a shared professional identity that proves to be co-constructed by individuals within a specific profession. This construction of a shared professional identity can easily be linked with graduate community engagement initiatives, as many of these individuals will transition into a desired occupation following the conclusion of their graduate studies. In stating this, it is important to note that Scanlon (2011) describes how postmodern professionals embrace reflexive practices and a deep analysis of self rather than traditional cognitive and normative superiority that proves to be linked with modern professionals. In short, this refers to the desire of postmodern professionals to practice life-long learning that goes beyond simply acquiring a degree and promotes a holistic identity. In further relating this to graduate students, an effective transition into the professional working environment includes this concept of developing a professional identity, and this in turn helps such individuals develop what the authors refer to as “a sense of deepening and nuancing rather than progression from one professional identity stage to the next” (Dostilio & Perry, 2017, p. 8). 

A final attribute emphasized by the Dostilio and Perry (2017) refers to the ability of an individual to develop a set of ethical commitments. Graduate students engaging in community engagement initiatives have an excellent opportunity to a set of values or norms that prove to be essential within a postmodern professional environment. More specifically, Scanlon (2011) refers to the importance of such characteristics in stating that postmodern professionals not only possess epistemological orientations, but also ontological orientations. In short, this balance between the two concepts refers to the essential ability of an individual to utilize both practical knowledge as well as ethical principles as they interact with others in their respective profession. The development of this ability proves to be essential for graduate students planning on becoming effective professionals as they work in such a way that promotes their professional identity.

The work of Dostilio and Perry (2017) expounds upon the benefits of community engagement practices, especially with regard to graduate students. In addition, this research supports and justifies the establishment of a pipeline and expectation for future community engagement professionals to start their professional development locally (within their home institutions) with the greater goal and intention of further developing their competencies as a community engaged professional in the future. In fact, a program facilitated on campuses, locally, could serve as a pipeline to complement a national program that further develops competencies on a more intensive level.

Exemplary Models

To provide further context for local institutional community engagement development opportunities for graduate students, this section will showcase two models that include three essential elements, which greatly assist in their ability to practice exemplary work. Initially, these models intentionally align with graduate student development and education on community engagement in a formalized and academically recognized way. Second, these two models integrate curriculum content on community engagement (e.g. practices, research, and approaches) with experiential learning initiatives. Finally, the two models frame community engagement as a discipline synonymous with an individual learner’s respective academic discipline (e.g. nursing, teaching, business, etc.).

The first exemplary model is the Graduate Certificate in Service-Learning and Community-Based Learning in Postsecondary Education (GCSLCBLPE) at Portland State University (Graduate Certificate in Service-Learning and Community-Based Learning in Postsecondary Education, 2016). Consisting of an 18 credit hour graduate certificate, this program represents the first of its kind and is one of the few that currently exist within the United States. This program is specifically designed for college professionals who possess a desire to be actively involved in coordinating community engagement initiatives, faculty interested in connecting academic content with experiential, community based-learning, and finally community partners keen on establishing connections between their agency and an institution of higher education, and can be completed within one academic year. The primary objectives of the GCSLCBLPE include:

  • Understanding theoretical foundations of civic engagement as a form of learning
  • Utilizing scholarly approaches, such as evidence-based outcomes of community-based learning, as a teaching and learning technique
  • Investigating curricular and co-curricular practices to further develop reciprocal campus-community partnerships
  • Engaging in experiential learning through community service, teaching, and assessing in order to grow as a professional

In addition to learning foundational theory and practice related to service-learning and community-based learning, learners participating in this program also apply their knowledge of community-based practices through a self-directed capstone experience.

Within the University Outreach and Engagement Office at Michigan State University’s Graduate School, there is a Graduate Certification in Community Engagement (GCCE). This certification serves as a preparatory resource for graduate students who are interested in pursuing a career that will include collaboration with various organizations (e.g., government-based, non-government, non-profits, for-profits, and others). Simply stated, the GCCE “is designed to help graduate and professional students develop systemic, respectful, and scholarly approaches to their community engaged work” (Graduate Certification in Community Engagement, n.d.). The program focuses primarily on the scholarly and practical skills for facilitating “engaged research and creative activities, engaged teaching and learning, engaged service, and engaged communication enriching activities” (Graduate Certification in Community Engagement, n.d.). Perhaps most valuable is the individualized approach to each learner and their specialized interest in community engagement.  

The primary goals of the GCCE include:

  • Preparation for a career as an engaged scholar or practitioner
  • Learning about scholarly approaches to community engagement
  • Gaining of skills for collaborating effectively and respectfully with community partners
  • Sharing disciplinary knowledge and experiences with other graduate students, faculty, and staff
  • Network with other engaged scholarship and practitioners – on campus and nationally.

The program model is operationalized by three requirements. The first includes the completion of 17 competency-based seminars (e.g., foundation of community engaged scholarship, evaluation of community partnership, working with diverse communities, etc.). The second requirement is a mentored community engagement experience and includes, “an opportunity to collaborate with a community partner and a faculty mentor on a project in a real-world, community setting” (Graduate Certification in Community Engagement: Community Experience, n.d.). The third requirement is an engagement portfolio which includes both a written and presentation based aspect. This serves as vehicle for discussing, reflecting upon, identifying valuable lessons and goals achieved, and soliciting critical feedback from the community partner about the experience in a holistic capacity.

The programs at both Michigan State and Portland State serve as models for how institutions can begin to include their students in preparation for a world that consistently demands collaborative, mutually beneficial and respectful approaches to not only partnerships, but also community engagement initiatives. Established programs seem to have the following three factors in common:

  • Formalized and academically recognized curriculum (legitimatized)
  • Course content is integrated with experiential learning initiatives (modeled)
  • Recognize community engagement as a complementary discipline (balanced)


This paper has addressed the concept of community engagement within higher education and the benefits associated with such a practice and showcased the relationship between community engaged professionals and postmodern professionals. More specifically, this analysis of literature related to community engagement initiatives and the analysis of the work done by community engaged professionals, suggests that there is a clear opportunity and connection. As such, this connection expresses the need for future exploration and additional investigation of community engagement initiatives involving graduate students. Furthermore, this warrants a call for more graduate student focused learning initiatives with an intentional, evidence-based approach to their development. The greater goal is for this population of learners to reap the benefits associated with such practices as they transition into an ever-evolving professional environment. 

Author Bios:

Christopher Adam Ray is an Assistant Director for Undergraduate Admissions at Western Carolina University. Adam’s most recent positions include serving as a Graduate Assistant in the Higher Education Student Affairs Master’s program within the Center for Service Learning, as well as the Office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Studies at Western Carolina University. Adam has also authored several publications. These publications have been included in referred journals such as the Journal of College Student Development. In addition, Adam also serves on the Educational Opportunities Planning Committee for the Carolinas Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (CACRAO). Adam holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and a Bachelor of Science in Social Science Education as well as a Master of Education in Higher Education Student Affairs from Western Carolina University.

Dr. Lane Perry currently serves as the Director of the Center for Service Learning and is an affiliated faculty member of the Human Services Department at Western Carolina University. Lane has presented and published extensively in the fields of community engagement, service-learning, global citizenship, and pedagogical approaches to disaster response. Most recently, he has been recognized as the 2015 North Carolina Campus Compact Civic Engagement Professional of the Year, the 2015 co-recipient of the John Saltmarsh Award for Emerging Leaders in Civic Engagement, and the 2017 Gulf South Summit Practitioner of the Year.

Dr. April Perry is the Program Director & Assistant Professor in the M.Ed. Higher Education Student Affairs program at Western Carolina University. As a practitioner, April worked in Leadership Programs, Parent & Family Programs, Fundraising & Marketing, and Academic Tutoring Services. She is passionate about student development in the college years and lives by the motto that ‘the only thing better than watching someone grow is helping them grow.’ In 2016, April received the WCU Graduate School’s Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring, and in 2017, she was named Outstanding Professional in Graduate and Professional Student Services, an award presented by the AGAPSS Knowledge Community of NASPA.


Boss, J. (1994). The effect of community service on the moral development of college ethics students. Journal of Moral Development, 23(2), 183-198. 

Bringle, R. G. & Hatcher, J. A. (2009). Innovative practices in service-learning and 

curricular engagement. New Directions for Higher Education, 37–46.

doi: 10.1002/he.356.

Bringle, R. G. & Hatcher, J. A. (1996). Implementing service-learning in higher 

education. The Journal of Higher Education, 2(67), 221-239.

Carnegie Community Engagement Classification Description. (n.d.). Retrieved from 


Dostilio, L. D. (forthcoming2017). The professionalization of community engagement: 

Associations and professional staff. In T. D. Mitchell, T. Eatman, C. Dolgan 

(Eds.), Cambridge Handbook for Service-learning and Community Engagement.

Dostilio, L.D. (Ed.) (2017). Community Engagement Professionals Project: Establishing 

a Preliminary Competency Model for Second Generation CEPs. Boston, MA: 

Campus Compact.

Dostilio, L. D. & McReynolds, M. (2015). Community engagement professionals in the 

circle of service-learning and the greater civic enterprise. Michigan Journal of 

Community Services Learning, 22(1), 113-117. 

Dostilio, L. D. & Perry, L. (2017). An explanation of community engagement 

professionals as professionals and leaders. In L.D. Dostilio (Ed.), Community 

Engagement Professionals Project: Establishing a Preliminary Competency 

Model for Second Generation CEPs. (pp. 3-21). Boston, MA: Campus Compact. 

Ehrlich, T. (2005) Service-learning in undergraduate education: Where is it going? 

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Retrieved from 


Fehr, A., Minty, L., Racey, M., Bettger, W., & Newton, G. N. (2014). FoodUCation: A 

graduate level community engaged learning project. Transformative 

Dialogues: Teaching & Learning Journal, 7(2), 1-9.

Gallini, S. & Moely, B. (2003). Service-learning and engagement, academic challenge and retention. Michigan Journal of Community Service-learning. 10(1), 5-14. 

Graduate certificate in service-learning and community-based learning in postsecondary 

education. (2016) Retrieved from http://www.pdx.edu/elp/graduate-certificate-in-service-


Graduate certification in community engagement. (2016). Retrieved from 


Graduate certification in community engagement: Community experience. (2016). Retrieved 

from http://gradcert.outreach.msu.edu/requirements/community_experience.aspx.    

Jacoby, B. & Mutascio, P. (Eds.)(2010) Looking in Reaching out: A reflective guide for

community service-learning professionals. Boston, MA: Campus Compact.  

Kuh, G. D. (2008). Excerpt from high-impact educational practices: What they are, 

who has access to them, and why they matter. Association of American 

Colleges and Universities.

Leung, A. Y., Chang, S. S., Kwan, C. W., Cheung, M. K., Leung, S. S., & Fong, D. Y. 

(2012). Service-learning in medical and nursing training: A randomized controlled 

trial. Advances in Health Science Education: Theory and Practice, 17(4), 

529-545. doi 10.1007/s10459-011-9329-9.

Markus, B., Howard, J., & King, D. (1993). Integrating community service and classroom instruction enhances learning: Results from an experiment. In C. Sullivan, R. Myers, C. Bradfield, & D. Street (Eds.). Service-Learning: Educating Students for Life, (pp. 59-76). Harrisonburg, James Madison University.

McReynolds, M. & Shields, E. (Eds.) (2015). Diving deep in community engagement: A 

model for professional development. Des Moines, IA: Campus Compact.  

Meili, R., Fuller, D., & Lydiate, J. (2011) Teaching social accountability by making the 

links: Qualitative evaluation of student experiences in a service-learning 

project. Medical Teaching, 33(8), 659-66.

Palonen, T., Boshuizen, H. P., Lehtinen, E. (2014). How expertise is created in emerging professional fields. In Promoting, Assessing, Recognizing and Certifying Lifelong Learning (pp. 131-149). Springer Netherlands. 

Perry, L. (2011). A Naturalistic Inquiry of service-learning in New Zealand university classrooms: Determining and illuminating the influence on student engagement (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Canterbury. New Zealand. 

Scanlon, L. (2011). ‘Becoming’ a Professional (pp. 13-32). Springer Netherlands.