How did we do? Forging the Future of Community Engagement

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ftf cs mobile market 550pxDuring the fall 2023 semester, UAB students, faculty and staff will have the opportunity to provide feedback and influence UAB’s next strategic plan — Forging Ahead — which will guide continued, purposeful growth for 2024-2028.

As we look ahead, we revisit the success achieved together through Forging the Future, UAB’s current strategic plan. Here, we celebrate our shared results and positive momentum in the Community Engagement pillar of our mission and the 2018-2023 strategic plan.

Community Engagement objectives outlined in Forging the Future were to expand access to community engagement resources, develop mutually beneficial partnerships, broaden scholarship in the field of community engagement and integrate engagement throughout the university.

Reduce barriers, increase engagement

ftf cs service day 550pxFinding ways to serve UAB needed a central hub to reduce barriers to community engagement and connect university expertise and effort internally and with community needs and partners, says Amy Hutson Chatham, Ph.D., director for the UAB-AmeriCorps VISTA Statewide Program and assistant dean for Undergraduate Education in the UAB School of Public Health.

Chatham, then director of Service Learning and Undergraduate Research, was a member of the task force and the original steering committee that implemented the centerpiece of the new community engagement strategy, BlazerPulse.

The BlazerPulse online platform helps identify, organize, promote and quantify activities ranging from volunteer projects to service-learning, community-based research and institutional outreach. Built on the platform, BlazerPulse enables users to create and manage volunteer communities and track, measure and share their impact.

Its integration with Engage, a site used by Student Affairs to organize student volunteer efforts, and Scholars@UAB, a site to help connect faculty and promote collaboration, simplifies access and reporting.

Initially more than 40 close community partners were trained and assisted with posting their opportunities to the platform, and the soft launch coincided with the annual MLK Day of Service on Jan. 21, 2019. The number of community partners using BlazerPulse to attract and document volunteer efforts has risen to 110 in 2022.

Soon after its launch, all designated service-learning courses were added to BlazerPulse, joining institutional volunteer opportunities such as Blazer Kitchen, the campus food pantry, and the Habitat for Humanity home build led by the UAB Benevolent Fund.

In the ensuing three-plus years, nearly 6,000 Blazers have completed more than 125,000 hours of community service — all tracked in BlazerPulse, says Lauren Cotant, associate director for Student Involvement and Leadership in the Office of Student Affairs and the current leader of the steering committee.

ftf cs hh exterior 550px“By integrating BlazerPulse with Engage and Scholars@UAB, we have been able to create a centralized starting point to work with UAB faculty, staff and students instead of each unit operating in silos,” Cotant said.

In addition, UAB is able to quantify the economic value of the volunteer time for service tracked through the platform. Since 2019, Blazers have supplied labor worth $1.97 million to support community partners, Cotant notes.

The UAB Benevolent Fund directs employee contributions to community organizations, directly and through the United Way. UAB, consistently ranked among the top 10 corporate supporters for United Way, ranked No. 6 in 2022 — pandemic notwithstanding. Collectively, UAB employees have donated slightly more than $45 million to local nonprofits through the Benevolent Fund since 1985, according to university records.

Several institutional initiatives also have benefited from expanded connectivity and collaboration. Blazer Kitchen, a campus food pantry that provides fresh, nutritious foods to students, employees and patients, is the greatest campus beneficiary of volunteer hours logged in BlazerPulse to date: 9,938. The pantry — financially supported by donations in cash and items — relies largely on volunteers to stock and help distribute food and household items in its two primary campus locations. Blazer Kitchen has distributed enough food for more than 575,000 meals since it opened in 2017, the equivalent of more than 9,500 meals each month.

Promising students

ftf cs btn 288x1148pxIn 2020, the City of Birmingham launched Birmingham Promise, a plan to provide every graduating senior at Birmingham City Schools with an opportunity to get financial help to attend any public two-year or four-year college in Alabama. UAB immediately became the city’s first academic partner, offering a scholarship to cover tuition for up to four years at UAB for full-time students who remain academically eligible.

“We are committed to supporting access to educational opportunities for Birmingham students, for they will be our city’s future leaders and workforce,” President Ray Watts said when announcing the partnership. “The program directly aligns with the core principles of the University of Alabama System, which is committed to improving the lives and educational opportunities of all residents of Alabama.”

The first 67 Birmingham Promise students enrolled in fall 2020, and another 115 have joined in the subsequent semesters, according to program data at the end of 2022.

Elevating the arts

UAB has long been a champion for, and leader in, the arts. Providing balance to the science- and medicine-focused research and clinical enterprise, UAB’s arts platforms enrich the experiences of the campus and surrounding communities.

Institutional investments in the arts, via the College of Arts and Sciences’ departments of Art and Art History, Music, and Theatre and through community-focused organizations and venues including the Alys Stephens Center and ArtPlay, have helped grow and elevate these platforms in myriad ways: in student enrollment, in audience attendance and in programming.

Its corollary is the Arts in Medicine program, which offers arts experiences to patients, families and staff in UAB hospitals and clinics to promote healing. These range from bedside and workshop activities to performance and visual art installations in public spaces. Since 2013, UAB Arts in Medicine has served more than 118,000 patients, family members and staff at UAB and more than 45,000 people at partner sites, including Children’s of Alabama, CARES and St. Vincent’s East.

UAB has additional community outreach opportunities in the form of its academic departments. In the Department of Music, which has long served the public with its faculty, student and professional concerts and recitals, a new PRISM concert now brings all its disciplines to one stage, from voice to percussion and from choirs to the jazz ensemble. And the renowned UAB Gospel Choir, which has included members from the community since its inception in 1985, continued to perform locally, nationally and even internationally.

The Department of Theatre introduced a new degree in musical theater, which proved to be wildly popular with prospective students and helped expand the already robust programming the department has been known for for four decades.

And the Department of Art and Art History also saw growth in a new master’s degree in cultural heritage, while highlighting the outstanding work of its students through its Bloom Studio, Juried Student Annual exhibitions and Bachelor of Fine Arts exhibitions.

At UAB, the arts are more than education and entertainment — the arts are places of acceptance and belonging, healing, growth, and catharsis, offering an emotional outlet, providing diverse learning opportunities, and embracing inclusion and equity.

See growth recaps of the Research, Patient Care and Education pillars and learn more about Forging the Future successes in Community Engagement and across all UAB mission pillars in UAB Magazine.