A ‘Co-Creative Relationship’ Toward Building Community

The Office of Civic Engagement fosters deeper, meaningful, and sustainable partnerships

Jillian Dowling ’24 tallies the 112,000 pounds of food the Winslow Community Cupboard handed out to local communities in the month of October while working at the Winslow Congregational church. (Photo by Gabe Souza)
By Tomas WeberPhotography by Gabe Souza, Ashley L. Conti, and Clare Stephens
July 5, 2023

Katherine Callahan ’24 arrived at Colby with interests in music and neuroscience and a desire to combine them in ways that might enrich the lives of people beyond campus.

Callahan, who is pursuing a double major in biology and music, was particularly interested in engaging with Waterville’s older residents. Growing up in southern Maine, she was aware of Maine’s distinction as the oldest state in the country.

“Lots of snowbirds coming in, lots of residents who’ve been here forever. That aging population deserves extra care,” she said.

Callahan will provide some of that care with a music-and-memory program that she is helping to create with funding from the O’Hanian-Szostak Fellowship, administered by the Office of Civic Engagement. Aware of the powerful effect of music on people’s brains—especially people with dementia—and knowing that listening to music helps unearth long-buried memories, Callahan purchased MP3 players for residents of local retirement communities.

This fall, she and seven of her Colby peers will share music, and conjure memories, with residents of Woodlands Senior Living in Waterville, helping to fill a void in the community.

The award-winning mentorship program Colby Care About Kids matches Colby students with children in area schools for a one-on-one exchange. CCAK is one of the largest and strongest volunteer programs in the College’s history. (Photo by Clare Stephens)

Colby has a long tradition of civic engagement. For more than 30 years, the Education Department has collaborated with Waterville public schools, and the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs has nurtured connections with community partners and local leaders.

Five years ago, Colby focused its vision for civic engagement to build a deeper, more impactful, and more sustainable way of collaborating with the community. This, the College hoped, would also equip students with the tools to become leaders and changemakers after graduation.

It established the Office of Civic Engagement and hired Elizabeth Jabar as the Lawry Family Dean of Civic and Community Engagement. In fall 2018, Colby also opened the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons in downtown Waterville, a residential community with civic engagement at its heart. Student accommodation in the downtown residence is highly coveted. To be allocated one of the apartments, students must demonstrate and maintain a commitment to the community.

A year later, the Office of Civic Engagement established the O’Hanian-Szostak Fellowship to provide funding for students to pursue civically engaged, self-directed projects. To date, 21 students have received funding, including Callahan. 

These developments have transformed how Colby interacts with Waterville, Jabar said. “Right now, we’re at a place where close to half the student body is engaging in some form,” she said. “I am thinking holistically about the opportunities for learning and engagement for students over their whole four years at Colby.”

The level of engagement varies. It starts with first-year students attending a program called Service Saturday, which offers a taste of civic responsibility. On the other end of the scale are juniors and seniors who have chosen to place the pursuit of social justice at the core of their lives. For these students, civic responsibility is the thread that binds together their academic studies, their community work, and their future ambitions.

Meanwhile, more traditional outlets for civic engagement have continued. Since 2019 Colby students have collaborated with more than 1,100 grade schoolers, through the longstanding program Colby Cares About Kids.

Leading students to STEM

Abaobi Nebuwa ’24, another O’Hanian-Szostak funding recipient, received a fellowship to engage with students at public schools in Lewiston. A computer science major, Nebuwa is working to inspire children facing economic barriers to become interested in STEM subjects.

The aim is to show kids that they “can be a part of something they might not see every day, or might not think that they can do,” said Nebuwa. “We are showing them that it’s possible.”

Meg Charest, right, ’20, Hardy Girls high school program coordinator, reviews the program for the opening of the Hardy Girls “Be You Boldly” 2023 Spring Conference with high school Feminist Action Board members. Colby students volunteer at the Maine-based Hardy Girls as Muses, the name of the organization’s college volunteer program, and several have worked for the organization after graduation. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

Thanks to the Office of Civic Engagement, the community work of the students does not ebb as much in the summer as it had in the past. “We all live and die by the academic calendar,” Jabar said. “But the real world doesn’t. We’re the folks tending to those relationships 12 months out of the year, filling the gap and being a reliable, trusted source for our community partners.”

Whether volunteering at a film festival or helping run art classes for local children, Colby students are keen to see their projects through over the summer. “They want to be here,” said Serena Sanborn, the education and outreach manager at Waterville Creates, a nonprofit arts organization. Summer “feels like a mini festival. There’s a lot going on.”

Interdisciplinary connections

Connecting academic departments with opportunities for civic engagement lies at the heart of Colby’s approach. Katie Spenser White, who leads the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, has witnessed the impact of the College’s deepening commitment.

Student volunteers often came to the shelter to serve meals, or to clean the parking lot. Important work, to be sure. But White felt the shelter’s relationship with Colby had the potential to be more transformative.

The shelter collects an enormous amount of data on homelessness. White knew it could be useful for helping shape policy. But the shelter lacked the resources. “I don’t have the time to do sophisticated data analysis,” she said. “I just don’t.”

On hearing this, the Office of Civic Engagement connected White with Jerzy Wieczorek, an assistant professor of statistics. Wieczorek’s students then performed a quantitative analysis of some of the shelter’s data.

Jillian Dowling ’24 carries a box of frozen meat with Bruce Bottiglierie of the Winslow Community Cupboard while working to stock shelves at the Winslow Congregational Church. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

The results had policy implications. By using housing-specific case managers (instead of case  managers with other specialties, such as in mental health or disability), the study found, more people could be helped to stay in stable housing, reducing homelessness.   

This winter, White took the study to a hearing on homelessness policy at the State House in Augusta. “If you really want to get people off the streets and keep them in stable housing, this is the way to do it,” White said. “It has transformational impact. It begins to move the needle way past ‘just go and get 20 hours of community service and we’ll certify that you’ve met a requirement.’”

Enriching the community as much as the young people who serve it, the Office of Civic Engagement encourages students to connect their sense of civic responsibility to their academic interests in ways that have genuine impact.

This is a model of civic engagement that is exciting to White.

“I want folks to have a much deeper experience than just serving a meal,” she said. “I want students to be able to tap into their own strength. There are so many different ways for people to engage and make it a meaningful experience.”

Jaber agreed. “We have a much closer relationship with nonprofits, now,” she said. “We understand their work on a deeper level, and they understand what we’re trying to do with students, too. It’s become a co-creative relationship.”