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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Thomas Bryer
September 30, 2014
This is the third of an occasional column series.
In the first Teaching Impact column, I defined impact as measurable both in student learning objectives and for the community. This was followed by my second column that unpacked some ideas for measuring the success of higher education in terms that are inclusive of the civic, skill building and knowledge development missions of universities. These columns drew on ideas from my recent book, Higher Education beyond Job Creation: Universities, Citizenship and Community.
This column focuses on the story. Once you have your data on impact, how do you tell the world about it? A good story is one that can speak to multiple audiences, indeed diverse audiences, simultaneously. It is a story that can inform the listener/reader/viewer about the importance of your program/institute/university and persuade them to take a closer look at who you are and what you do. It blends data with anecdote, appeals to the brain and the heart, or the feeler and the thinker in the audience.
Let me provide a couple of examples. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Management is the research and community engagement arm of the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida (UCF). We measure success partially on the idea of our return on engagement (ROE), which in the broadest form asks how the world (policy, programs, institutions, organization structures, et cetera) is different because of the research and/or service of our affiliated faculty and students. Among our projects is an AmeriCorps VISTA project that seeks to build the capacity of local school districts and partner homeless serving organizations to better meet the needs of homeless students—a population that equals approximately 3.5 percent of the total student population in school districts surrounding the university.
The Corporation for National and Community Service asked the center to provide a presentation to an audience of volunteer service organizations and Corporation staff. Our aim was to communicate the significance of national service programs and strongly suggest the value of engaging a university as a broker entity to host a national service program. The strategy we employed was twofold: first, we shared hard data on the number of K-12 students who had access to services that did not prior to our project, as well as data on the (preliminary) effect new mentoring and tutoring programs had on homeless student academic behavior and achievement (e.g., attendance and grades). Second, we asked a student who had been homeless to discuss his firsthand experiences both in struggling to focus on his schoolwork and in gaining access to people and places that could propel him forward to graduate high school and get into college. We closed the presentation by discussing the added benefits of the university serving as project host, such as greater access to professional development opportunities.
Here is another story. I hope it pulls at your heartstrings as it continues to pull at mine. In the Orlando area, there is a high school in a low-income neighborhood that has a history of struggling to help students achieve high marks. The struggle is not the school’s alone but is with the whole community, as the poverty prevents wholesome meals from being available for all students throughout the week, hinders stable and safe living environments and correlates with broken families. None of these factors facilitate academic concentration and indeed present mighty headwinds for students.
Enter UCF. We designed a “joined up” service-learning class that brought graduate public administration students together with a selection of high school students. Together, they engaged in joint classroom activity, learning exercises and shared research to develop recommendations for enhancing the school and institutions in the surrounding community to support families more holistically. A combined 60 or so students were engaged, leaving both groups with feelings of greater empathy, new marketable skills and power to make a difference in their community. One high school student wrote in an unsolicited note:“Thank you for the opportunity to be part of the community school focus group process. I speak on the behalf of Evans High students when I say we appreciate your efforts to try to make our school not feel like a school, but a home, and for that we are grateful. We know that you do not have to do these things for us, most people don’t know us and don’t know how great we can be and the things we can do or our talents and hopes and dreams that we withhold. They don’t know what we go through and the pain and struggles we deal with. Evans is my home. I walk these halls and I see my brothers and sisters fall, they fall into the temptations and cruelty of this world. I see how great and stunning they are, things other people will never see. So on behalf of my family I say thank you UCF . . . Thank you.”
Informed by the research from these students, Evans is now school with a groundbreaking model for wrap-around service delivery in Florida. The ROE is clear.
Telling stories can be limiting and even damaging. A single story can have multiple narratives. When combined with data and character, hard logic and raw emotion, thinking and feeling, the story can persuade stakeholders that your impact is just as valuable as any other.
Author: Thomas Bryer is director of the Center for Public and Nonprofit Management at the University of Central Florida and chair of the ASPA Section on Public Administration Education. He is delivering a webinar on his book for the ASPA Booktalk series. Register at https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/319832202 and contact [email protected]