School of Journalism and Mass Communication supports diversity and inclusion, safety training, and improvement initiatives across Iowa
Community engaged coursework improves communities through experiential learning
Rachel Young, director of undergraduate studies at the school of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa, has taught many community engaged courses, especially in public relations and strategic communications.
Since 2013, Young has worked with the Office of Community Engagement (OCE) to develop community partnerships, recently as the co-chair of the Path Forward RISE sub-committee for service-learning and civic engagement. As part of the committee, Young worked with the OCE to help develop the community engaged course designation (CEC).
"In the past, I've done a client-based model, which would be common in strategic communication," Young said. "You might work with a different organization each semester on a communications problem or an issue that they would want to address or learn more about through communications."
The first project Young and the OCE collaborated on involved working with Washington, Iowa, to pass a hotel-motel tax, which had failed several times before.
"People there did not understand what a hotel-motel tax was and who it was taxing," Young said. "Everywhere else had a hotel-motel tax. Still, their community was not getting the benefit of tax revenue from visitors."
Young's class produced materials used on social media and by groups promoting the tax, explaining what the program could do for the community to help it pass the next time.
Other small-scale projects had students producing campaigns that the community partner would later implement.
Students recently worked with the 'Dr. Richard E. Kerber HeartSafe Initiative,' an organization at the University of Iowa.
Dr. Kerber was a cardiologist at the University of Iowa. His wife Linda - an esteemed historian - founded HeartSafe with Dr. Dianne L. Atkins in memory of Dr. Kerber's work as a pioneer in developing resuscitation techniques for people experiencing cardiac arrest.
HeartSafe wanted to encourage the campus community to become CPR certified and instruct people about the defibrillators they had successfully placed at campus buildings.
Young's class had two groups, one focused on faculty and staff, and the other on students.
"Both groups did a lot of research to understand some of the barriers to becoming CPR certified or barriers to performing CPR and some of the knowledge gaps," Young said. "They both looked at some of the best ways to reach their publics."
The student-focused group created a humorous video that included street interviews, while the faculty and staff group had a more person-to-person approach.
The faculty group recommended that representatives from HeartSafe go into faculty meetings and encourage the different departments to adopt a goal of CPR and defibrillator training.
A larger-scale community-engaged project worked with the Office of Community Development in Columbus Junction, Iowa, south of Iowa City.
"Columbus Junction has seen a lot of demographic changes to its population over the past four or five decades," Young said. "They have a large Latino community there, and now they also have a sizeable Burmese refugee community there as well."
The city was looking for advice in developing a community celebration for their Sesquicentennial – 150th anniversary - in 2024 that took the theme of embracing change.
"Often, we think of a community event like that of being a celebration of the past, of what it was like 150 years ago," Young said. "Community leaders there really wanted the event to reflect what the community was now. They wanted to make sure that everybody living in Columbus Junction felt like the celebration was for them, about them, and welcomed them."
Young's class interviewed different community leaders, looked at other examples of communities in Iowa and beyond that had tried to develop inclusive celebrations, and produced ideas on approaching both the planning process and the event itself.
Locally, community-engaged courses within the journalism school are focused on several pilot projects related to different organizations and community concerns in Coralville, Iowa. Projects include working with 'Houses into Homes,' the Coralville Library oral history archive, and collecting stories on water quality in the environmental communication class.
In addition to the materials produced, the process itself tends to be valuable. The journalism school is working to develop more sustained partnerships with Coralville civic and community organizations due to the challenges of the client-based model, where students have a community partner for a semester and then move on to a new one in the following semester.
Courses that continue to work with the same community partner each semester can build on previously made ties, which means not explaining themselves and what they do each semester.
With each project, students gain experience with the same place and the same issues. That means that there is more of a sustained connection for both the students and the community partners.
"The goal of a more sustained partnership with the community of Coralville and many organizations working there is that the relationships that we develop can get stronger over time," Young said. "Also, our students can have more of a community impact because they might do several projects with the same organization over time in their major."
Often, community partners are happy to have students' work, whether research or materials. They also appreciate the chance to reflect on what they do when answering questions about the scope of what they want students to do, their values, and their communications strategies.
"Many nonprofits that we work with are small and do not have a staff dedicated to communications,” Young said, “which is work they must do among all the other things they have to do, so just getting a chance to reflect on it is also helpful."