An important part of the Lawrence experience is the opportunity to volunteer and make connections within the surrounding community. As students return to campus for the start of Fall Term, Garrett Singer is excited to welcome them as the new director of the Center for Community Engagement and Social Change (CCE).
To hit the ground running, the CCE is holding an outdoor engagement fair on the quad at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 17, where incoming and returning students can meet with about two dozen community partners to learn about their missions and be introduced to the work that happens in the Fox Valley. There will be food trucks, carnival games, and live music leading into the fair.
“We’re really hoping to make a splash as students return to campus, and to grow awareness of our work, our mission, and our physical space,” Singer said.
He said he looks forward to engaging with Lawrence students to help them discover opportunities to serve in the community and build lasting relationships with area nonprofits. He wants to raise the profile of the CCE on campus while emphasizing the importance of building community engagement skills.
“What it’ll develop, hopefully, is this cycle of engagement, dialogue, and action where our own ability to serve is informed by our previous service experiences and those interactions with communities and individuals whom we might not have crossed paths with in our pre-Lawrentian lives,” Singer said.
From an early age, Singer was exposed to the impacts and benefits that come from a working relationship between higher education and the surrounding community. Both of his parents were involved in education commissions with local community colleges that aimed to increase educational attainment. Their work sparked his desire to enter the nonprofit field, and after earning his bachelor’s degree at Washington and Lee University, Singer went to work as district executive for Boy Scouts of America in North Carolina.
“I was exposed to the incredible work that young people are capable of and I think is often overlooked,” Singer said.
He eventually enrolled in a master’s program of higher education and administration at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. There he worked with nonprofits and designed programs to develop service-learning opportunities for undergraduates to form partnerships with those local organizations.
After earning his masters, Singer set his sights on Lawrence. He knew he wanted to sit at the juncture between higher education and civic work. He also knew that he wanted to re-enter the private liberal arts setting that he enjoyed during his undergrad years. A main draw for Singer, though, was Lawrence’s ongoing commitment to social change despite all the uncertainty during the pandemic.
“A lot of colleges and universities were not making a demonstrated commitment to the type of work that I was interested in,” Singer said. “Lawrence was the exception to that rule.”
Singer said he feels honored to join Lawrence as its new CCE director and is ready to dig in to the work ahead. The first objective, he said, is simply to grow awareness of the CCE on campus and let students know of the varied volunteer opportunities that exist.
The second objective is to make sure the partnerships that are developed with community agencies reflect and represent student interests and identity, Singer said.
A third objective focuses on improved academic integration with civic work. The CCE has service-learning programs—Viking Ambassadors in Service and Engagement (VASE)—that help students make connections through volunteering while also learning about issues within the community. Singer wants to expand those programs and explore ways to better integrate them in the curriculum.
“Those are the things that we want to think about, not only defining those learning outcomes, but also assessing them on the tail end and figuring out how we are really impacting student development,” Singer said.
An important aspect in reaching these goals is to have a good working relationship with Lawrence faculty, he said. Many faculty members have already been supplementing students’ academic experiences through their own community connections. The next step, said Singer, is to encourage those faculty members to be ambassadors for community-based learning, showing other faculty how they’ve built these service-learning experiences into their classrooms.
“The CCE comes into play by facilitating those conversations and those relationships, as well as building out a library of resources that faculty can leverage to support that development,” Singer said.
Volunteering, he said, will help students build lives of meaning and purpose. That happens not only by sending students into the community, but also by creating innovative ways to bring the community to campus.
“So, as the CCE moves forward,” Singer said, “we’ll build relationships that will allow for richer, more robust, and more colorful experiences, and I think that’s really what we’re striving for—to get us on the same page so that we can move forward together.”