For many, the goal of research is to share findings that will one day enhance society, but too often graduate students become so consumed by their studies that they remain solely in the academic space. The Office of Community Engagement has created the Graduate Engagement Corps (GEC) to address this issue by providing opportunities for graduate students to form relationships with their community through their studies.
Nick Benson, Executive Director of the Office of Community Engagement, describes GEC as “a program to help build mutually beneficial partnerships between graduate students and community partners.” These result in work that advances both the research objectives of graduate students and the missions of the community partners they work with. Students are empowered to integrate community engagement into the research and projects they are passionate about.
“All students participating in GEC are interested in making a difference in their community,” Benson says. “Part of why they pursued grad school is because they want to solve problems and tackle issues that matter to them. GEC provides them with the knowledge and resources to go out and make a difference.”
GEC is in its second year of service with 26 graduate students in the 2022-2023 cohort. After attending a 3-day orientation training in January and participating in two GEC-led workshops, five GEC member applicants received grant funding to pilot their projects. Two of these members are doctoral students, Yuchen Liu, Foreign Language and ESL Education, and Frankline Matanji, Journalism and Mass Communication.
Liu’s research captures the unheard stories of immigrant families in the Iowa City area. She works with local non-profit organizations like Open Heartland, IC Compassion, and the African Networking Community to build relationships with different immigrant communities. Liu says that she may not be able to change the world, but she can “influence the community and create a space for immigrants’ archived stories so that they feel more connected.” Currently, Liu is developing an educational app in which she can collect and share these stories to better inform the public.
“I aim to make the app more interactive to integrate story-based learning techniques,” Liu says. “I want people to read and engage with the stories to learn from each other’s cultural background. Geotagging the story to the location in which these stories take place is another goal of mine to create a more authentic learning space.”
Liu uses her grant money to work with app developers as well as language interpreters to ensure what is being said during her interviews is properly translated. Her goal is to provide the narratives in English in addition to the native language of the storyteller to reach a broader audience. These dual language efforts will have a greater impact on the community of the storyteller and exemplifies Liu’s efforts in building mutual trust between herself and her audience.
“GEC emphasizes the importance of building trust-worthy partnerships with different communities to create a sustainable study,” Liu explains. “Before my research even begins, I have an open dialogue with the community I am working with to understand their needs. You can’t come into a group you are not a part of and immediately offer solutions without speaking and listening to them. Through GEC I have learned the language to use when engaging with communities as a researcher.”
Matanji also demonstrates GEC’s values of understanding community building through research. In April 2023, Matanji will travel to Kenya and become part of a local community in Nairobi County in order to investigate how the Joyful Women organization utilizes digital media in community fundraising. Joyful Women is a self-help group that aims to economically empower women in rural and urban Kenya.
“Kenya is a collectivist society where people notice problems in the community and support each other, so they have formed these community self-help groups,” Matanji explains. “I will learn about the community by being a part of the group. I will be able to see how they conduct business and how they utilize digital media in their daily operations.”
Matanji’s research investigates how the adoption and role of smartphones effect Joyful Women’s members, practices, and fundraising. He is focused on how digital media supports economic growth within this self-help group. This topic is a deep interest of Matanji’s as it originally was an idea for his dissertation, but due to travel restrictions because of Covid-19 he had to put this project on hold. GEC’s grant support made this project possible again, and he has plans to utilize this opportunity to create an impact in his field.
“My research will contribute more knowledge in the domain of digital media and economic empowerment in the global south,” Matanji says. “Most of this kind of research has been conducted in the global north and western countries, so I aim to expand upon and enrich the literature surrounding this topic.”
In addition to providing opportunities for these students to make an impact through their projects, GEC provides them with opportunities that will continue to fuel their academic pursuits. For Liu, GEC offered a space for her to explore research options and find participants for her dissertation work. Being able to build a professional network also pushed Liu further into her research outside of the GEC space.
“GEC is a mediator to help make connections and find research participants,” Liu says. “GEC faculty don’t give up if they can’t help you with a task and because they are involved in different fields, they send you to their connections that can help you through your problems. I was struggling to find my target population for my research but working with GEC faculty made that possible.”
For Matanji, the skills and knowledge gained through GEC’s training expand far beyond the scope of his research. Matanji instills the same goals and values promoted by GEC into his classroom, creating assignments for his students to be involved with the community. He plans to continue in community engagement in his doctoral research and in his future career.
“I appreciate that GEC gives us the opportunity for us to understand the meaning of engaging with a community,” Matanji says. “Our projects encourage us to be more resourceful, interact with the community, and integrate community engagement in our careers.”