Creating change agents through student-community engagement
Increasingly universities are under pressure to provide evidence of their contribution to society. This requires them to develop new models of engaging at various levels. In doing so, universities have to transition from merely teaching and research to include direct relations with society. University outreach has evolved and taken various forms to make university knowledge and expertise available to end users. While some universities have stuck to the traditional model of outreach focused on dissemination of research results others have gone a step further to embedding community interaction in their curricula. One such university is EARTH University in Costa Rica which has adopted a model named the Community Engagement Model.
Recently, RUFORUM hosted Prof Elmer Cantarero from EARTH University, together with two of his former students from Uganda, to share their experiences in community engagement. Prof Cantarero had just returned from a visit to Gulu and Egerton Universities to review how the two universities currently engage with communities and which practices will be incorporated in implementation of the TAGDev Programme (Transforming African Agricultural Universities to meaningfully contribute to Africa’s growth and development). TAGDev is an 8-year partnership between the two universities, The MasterCard Foundation and RUFORUM.
According to Prof. Cantarero, university engagement with communities is important to help them support development across sectors and therefore add value to society. Community engagement, in particular, provides an opportunity to deliver social value to communities.
EARTH University approach to Community Engagement
At EARTH University, community engagement does not operate in a vacuum, but rather within the broader framework of the university’s Permanent Education Programme whose main objective is to take the universities and knowledge closer to communities to improve their farming, post-production, and sales practices.
At the curriculum level, community engagement is streamlined in the curriculum and students start interacting with communities right from the time they begin their degree in Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resource Management. In their first and second years, students are engaged in project activities in the community, led by fourth year students. In their third year, community engagement is more structured as students undertake a seven week internship in a community, during which time they are hosted by a family. In their fourth year, students continue to engage with communities as leaders of projects being implemented by students in their first and second years of study.
The EARTH University approach is unique in that, aside from embedding students within communities for seven weeks, it is based on ethical value systems. This means that all activities are linked to the university’s core values of sustainable agricultural development which are then passed on to communities. For example, rather than solely focusing on increasing agricultural production or generating economic value, the model also seeks to impart values to ensure that communities are conscious of the effect of their activities on the environment and society as a whole.
Testimonies from Alumni
For Agil Katumanyane and Caroline Akampa, two Ugandan nationals who graduated from EARTH University in 2015 and 2016 respectively, the community engagement experience was life changing.
During her seven week internship where she was attached to a local farming family in Costa Rica, Agil had a lot of adjusting to do but she quickly learned to relate with them, eat what they ate, and actually enjoy the whole experience. Together, they identified a couple of problems the family was facing and chose one to focus on during the internship. At the time, the family produced chilli pepper, but was battling a disease that had attacked their crop. Agil helped develop a solution and produced a simple manual of measures for the family to take in order to manage the disease.
On her part, Carol’s host family wanted to establish a mango farm, but did not know where to start. Together they identified a piece of land where they would establish the farm and she carried out a soil analysis in order to determine whether the soil was suitable for the project. Recently Carol received a message from her ‘dad’ telling her that they planted the mangoes and all was going well.
This experience has been life-changing for the two alumni. In their own words, they stated that the internship had taught them to appreciate different cultures, adapt to unfamiliar situations, and become solution seekers not just problem identifiers. “I have learned to be more conscious about people’s needs and what I can do to help the community to better their lives”, said Agil.
Asked whether they would recommend inclusion of community engagement in university curricula, they both replied with a resounding yes, “Communities need knowledge in order to change and students are the agents of this change. We need more out there.”