Thursday, July 7, 2022

Graduate student finds her target research population, grant support, community partnerships, and more in Graduate Engagement Corps

A new community engagement program for graduate students helps students uplift Iowa communities while advancing in their field.


Originally from China, Yuchen Liu, a Ph.D. candidate in Foreign Language and ESL Education, came to the University of Iowa after receiving an offer to join the Ph.D. program in 2016 after spending two years in Kentucky pursuing a master's degree.

Now in the sixth year of her program, Liu is in All But Dissertation (ABD) status after completing all doctoral degree requirements except for writing a dissertation.

In 2021, Liu joined the Graduate Engagement Corps (GEC), which introduced her to the concept of community engagement.

"I had never done anything like it," Liu said. "I had engaged with local communities as a volunteer at locations like the food bank, crisis center, and some other nonprofit organizations around Iowa City, but that was all I knew."

The GEC was launched by the Office of Community Engagement to connect University of Iowa graduate students with training and partnerships to advance their research in collaboration with Iowa communities.

"I gained a lot by joining the GEC, including how to find resources and support for my research," Liu said. "I recommend it to graduate students looking for a welcoming and open-minded program that helps connect research with communities through engagement."

During the first day of the GEC orientation, members attended zoom meetings which introduced them to comprehensive and informative topics in community engagement, including new concepts and programs.

"There were also guest speakers," Liu said. "This was helpful because I could reach out to them later and ask about their experiences and how they were involved in community engagement before the GEC launched."

Student groups formed during the orientation provided additional support as well.

"I was struggling, thinking I would be alone doing my research, but this inspired me to realize that I'm not alone; I have this whole group that knows what they are doing," Liu said. "It made me feel like I have the support I need, and if I have questions, I can reach out."

The second day of the GEC orientation was in-person. It started with presentations from Nick Benson, executive director of the Office of Community Engagement, in addition to team-building activities.

"I loved the activities; they were engaging," Liu said. "We got to know each other while drawing posters as a group, and I love drawing."

During the third day of the GEC new member orientation, Liu had the opportunity to visit Open Heartland in Iowa City, an organization focused on serving immigrant and refugee populations in Johnson County founded by former Executive Director of the Iowa Children's Museum and adjunct professor at the University of Iowa, Deb Dunkhase.

"I was so excited to meet Deb and hear all her experiences," Liu said. "She had such a strong desire to tell the stories of immigrants and refugees, and at that time, I was still thinking about what to propose for my dissertation topic, and then it clicked, and I knew what I should do."

The chance encounter led to an unforeseen opportunity for Liu.

"Before that, I had no idea what I would do for my research; I just knew the topic and my interests," Liu said. "It was all scattered ideas. I was interested in technology and education as a tool, intercultural communication, and language culture, but it was all segmented."

Liu had been struggling with how to combine her interests and identify a target population for her research.

"I talked to my advisor," Liu said. "They gave me advice that didn't align with my passion, but then I met Deb Dunkhase through the GEC, and everything happened so fast after that. Where I am right now, it's like, how did it happen? I joined the GEC, which opened new opportunities for me, and then Open Heartland helped me identify my research target population, which is just amazing!"

The title of Liu's research project started as Language and Culture Contextualization, later becoming Digital Innovation to Develop Intercultural Communicative Competence and then expanding to include Within Iowa's Community Organizations to reflect the objectives of her university grant.

"It's now a long title that sounds boring," Liu said. "But I love my project."


In 2020, Liu began developing a mobile application related to language and culture with a friend, which would function as a platform to archive stories and co-construct accounts with storytellers across different cultures.

"I thought this was something Deb might be interested in and gave my three-minute pitch at the meeting with all the people around me," Liu said. "And she said yes! Let's talk about this!"

A week later, Liu met individually with Dunkhase to discuss the potential of creating an application that would tell the stories of immigrants and refugees while providing resources for those looking to integrate into local communities.

"Meeting with her, I felt like everything lined up perfectly," Liu said.

At the same time, Liu discovered a university grant program accepting applications, so she printed it out and brought all the information to Dunkhase.

"I was struggling because I had never written a grant application," Liu said. "I didn't have any faculty to support me then. Deb was the first person who stood up and said, 'I am going to help you reach out to faculty."

Dunkhase then introduced Liu to her contacts from the University of Iowa, with whom she had previously collaborated on research projects.

In addition to being awarded a university grant, Liu received a grant through the GEC, which provided the financial support she needed to help launch her research project.

"The GEC grant was very beneficial," Liu said. "I am planning to use the money for traveling to conferences and presenting my research because the university grant doesn't provide coverage for travel."

Liu will also use the GEC grant to purchase materials and supplies needed to organize her work, including books and print copies of immigrant and refugee stories.


The app began with Liu’s friend Stuart, an exchange student from the United Kingdom (UK), who had to return early when the 2020 pandemic hit.

"We met during an Engaging Across Culture workshop hosted by the International Programs department," Liu said. "We were interested in language, culture, and intercultural communication and discussed a potential project during a small group meeting. I felt like we had the same wiring in our brains and the same interests."

Once Stuart returned to the UK, he continued to meet with Liu during online workshops and zoom meetings and explore ideas for the app.

"We would brainstorm for a long time and get inspired by Duo Lingo – a small language learning app – to use culture to educate people beyond the superficial level," Liu said. "I wanted to get down to the deep culture – how to let people hear and learn about culture while maintaining authenticity and not losing meaning during the translation."

What initially began as a business idea morphed into a free application to help uplift and integrate those from other countries looking to understand and communicate within a foreign culture.

"For example, I am an international student with different demands and needs," Liu said. "So we thought we could recruit international students with experience living and studying in the United States and interview them. We would ask them to share stories and experiences, archive their stories, and co-construct with the storytellers in the app."

Liu then expanded her thinking beyond international students to include backpackers, travelers, and those who want to do business interculturally.

Eventually, she realized there wasn't a category for the voices and stories of immigrants and refugees, which became the inspiration for an app exclusively tailored to serving their unique needs and perspectives.

"I can't just walk in and say hey, I have this incredible thing; use it, or I see the problem, and here is the solution," Liu said. "That is not the conversation you want to have with communities; you want to walk in and hear them and figure out what they want."

Using feedback from immigrant and refugee populations served by Open Heartland in Iowa, Liu will design the app to tell their stories, elevate their visibility in local communities, and have their experiences archived for the next generation and the broader community.


The GEC is not a one-size-fits-all program; each of the 25 members had different needs and was at different levels or stages of their graduate programs.

"I don't speak for others, but for me," Liu said. "I was struggling with finding a target population for my research and getting connections and knowledge to learn about community engagement practically and not just from a textbook. That was my need, and the GEC provided what I needed."

The GEC also provides social opportunities, relationship building, and networking opportunities among the cohort. Liu expressed that she regularly reaches out to other members and has become friends with many of them throughout the program.

"Amazingly, the Office of Community Engagement tailored the GEC so everyone can get what they want from here," Liu said. "Everyone is so friendly and open-minded. Another student, Ashley, is a first-year Ph.D. in Public Health and has had a very positive experience with the program based on her own needs, which is phenomenal."

Story by James Dykeman