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Elon team researches student involvement with local nonprofits

Findings were shared Oct. 11, 2013, with representatives from several Alamance County agencies who took part in a study to uncover the motivations, benefits, and challenges of asking college students to volunteer.

From left: Alexa Darby, Tammy Cobb and Frances Ward-Johnson on Oct. 11, 2013, in the university's Downtown Center for Community Engagement 

When university students assist a local nonprofit, that organization often benefits from the extra help, but sometimes it’s hard to find college students that are a “good fit” in the agency.

And while extra help is appreciated – as well as the energy and new ideas they bring – it can take time to train college students, and scheduling is sometimes difficult. Staff members at local agencies also desire more faculty involvement in their students’ volunteer experiences.

Such were the findings of a study conducted by three Elon University faculty and staff members whose work was shared this month with representatives of more than a dozen local nonprofits that rely on Elon students for service work.

Led by associate professors Alexa Darby and Frances Ward-Johnson, as well as Tammy Cobb, assistant director for community partnerships in the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement, the presentation was made Oct. 11 in the university’s Downtown Center for Community Engagement in Burlington, N.C. 

Research from their presentation titled “Motivations for Collaboration: Findings and Dialogue” has been accepted for publication in Partnerships: A Journal of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement. 

It was important to the team to not only provide the findings but to have discussion about the future with the service learning leaders.

“Today’s conversation should model how we work with our community partners. Providing you with feedback and data that is relevant to your work with us is only one part of the equation,” Cobb said. “This is an opportunity for you to help answer the question, ‘so what is next?’ You can inform us through assessing what has been done well and want to keep, what you would like to see changed and what could enhance our relationships with the community.”

Community organizations collaborate with universities because the partnerships offer an opportunity to inform students about their clients’ needs and societal issues affecting the clients they serve; give students insight into the inner workings of the nonprofit world; and help educate students about cross-cultural differences.

After interviewing staff members from 15 local community agencies, the Elon researchers found that nonprofit leaders identified the college students’ age to be helpful in mentoring younger clients and bringing fresh ideas to their organization.

However, a semester was sometimes too short a time period for students to work with agencies, both because clients form bonds with the students and because students begin projects they don’t have enough time to complete.

“The university educates its students but community partners also play a crucial role in this education,” Darby said. “Community members’ motivation to be co-educators for college students alongside university faculty and staff fuels their commitment and their resilience in persisting through challenging times.”

Eric Townsend,
10/15/2013 2:35 PM