On a sunny afternoon Cala Salah is up to her elbows in the dirt. Far removed from textbooks, dry erase boards and computers, Salah, a public health major at UofL, harvests vegetables as part of her internship with the Food Literacy Project.
Her work’s purpose is twofold: it supports the organization’s mission to address disparities in access to health foods for traditionally excluded and marginalized populations; and it helps Salah fulfill the requirements she needs to graduate.
Salah’s work with the Food Literacy Project illustrates how the university supports the whole student through transformative, purpose-driven and engaged learning. UofL’s strategic plan emphasizes the need for robust engaged learning experiences to make the university a great place to learn for its students and a great place to connect to community and industry partners.
Engaged learning is nothing new at UofL, where many programs include engaged learning requirements in their curricula. The University Career Center serves nine of the university’s 12 colleges/schools, representing almost 16,000 undergraduate and graduate students in more than 50 academic units. The College of Business, J.B. Speed School of Engineering and Brandeis School of Law all have career centers serving their students specifically.
But the abundance of engaged learning opportunities available across campus, while a good problem to have, presented an opportunity to create a centralized solution to better serve students.
This fall, UofL opened the Center for Engaged Learning (CEL), designed as a first stop for students who want to enhance their learning experience beyond the classroom. The CEL comprises two offices, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity and the Office of Experiential Learning. These offices partner with the Career Centers, Office of Community Engagement, Office of Study Abroad and International Travel, academic programs and several other units to connect students with engaged learning activities.
Paul DeMarco, interim director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity, served on strategic plan subcommittees focused on the need to engage every undergraduate student in meaningful experiential learning opportunities. Streamlining resources and processes to improve the student experience and their career prospects after graduation became a top priority of the groups.
“These are opportunities for students to apply what they learn in class to real-world problems,” DeMarco said.
DISCOVERING A PASSION
Madison Cicha, an environmental science major, completed a 10-week Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) directed by the CEL and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity. The SROP provides students with a structured and immersive research experience with a faculty member, as well as weekly professional development seminars. For her research, Cicha worked with the Green Heart Louisville Project and the Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute to measure how trees and other vegetation provide a sound buffer along heavily trafficked roadways in Louisville.
“It was a great opportunity to do this caliber of research, especially as an undergraduate student,” Cicha said. “The people I met at the Envirome Institute were great to work with, and I think that experience and those new relationships will set me up for my future goals.”
The mentoring she received from Ray Yeager, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and a contributor to Green Heart, provided her with much needed guidance on research that she would not have been able to learn on her own.
“Research opportunities are crucial for students to gain much needed skill sets outside of the classroom,” Yeager said. “Such experiential learning provides a transition to working independently, problem solving, personalized feedback and tailored opportunities that are invaluable for career preparation.”
Engaged learning does not stop with course requirements. According to Erica Gabbard, director of the Office of Experiential Learning, the CEL also helps students enrolled in programs without engaged learning opportunities find ways to apply their studies to professional experiences.
Sasha Gorchanyuk, a senior communication major with a minor in film studies, discovered her passion for and talent in working with corporate partnerships through her internship with the Louisville Bats Minor League Baseball team. Gorchanyuk knew she wanted experience in sports and was eager to learn about elements of the industry that were not familiar to her. Her internship allowed her to take on different roles in the front office including corporate partnerships, ticket sales, in-game entertainment and promotional activities.
Gorchanyuk, who will graduate in May 2023, places immense value in the engaged learning experience.
“I would advise students to say ‘yes’ to any internship opportunities,” she said. “I’ve completed internships ever since my sophomore year, and they have influenced who I am today and informed me on what I want to do after graduation.”
CONNECTING WITH THE COMMUNITY
The CEL is not just a resource for students. Community and industry partners often ask UofL for guidance on the best types of students (majors, talents, etc.) for their internship positions and how to create a meaningful engaged learning experience for both the student and the business.
The benefits of quality partnerships are seen through UofL alumni, such as Oliver Kratholm ’22. During the spring 2022 semester, Kratholm enrolled in a community internship course, which provided him with the opportunity to work with Seven Counties Services, a mental and behavioral health, substance abuse treatment and intellectual and developmental disabilities service.
He found firsthand exposure to the clinical setting was rewarding and enlightening.
“Being able to shadow professionals as they work with a variety of clients with different mental health concerns really sparked my interest for pursuing further education and a career in the field,” Kratholm said.
At the conclusion of the internship, he continued with Seven Counties. He is also doing work with a research lab at UofL and plans to eventually return to school to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology.
The paint in the new CEL is still drying, but Gabbard and DeMarco are excited about the university’s new resource. The CEL is assembling an advisory board comprised of local community organizations, economic development representatives, industry partners and nonprofits which will help strengthen connections between the university and the community. Other goals include looking for opportunities to help faculty incorporate engaged learning in their coursework and finding other ways for UofL students to get more out of class by getting out of the classroom.
“UofL wants engaged learning to be more than a box to check on the road to graduation,” Gabbard said. “For our students, now is the time to test the waters, try new things and expand their skill set so they can confidently enter the workforce in the vocation they choose.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Julie Heflin and Brad Knoop from the Office of Communications and Marketing as well as Stuart Esrock (retired) from the communication department and the University Career Center contributed to this article.