Better Together: UTEP Scholars Engage with Community

Last Updated on July 10, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Originally published July 10, 2017

By Christina Rodriguez

UTEP Communications

“Community engagement” typically brings to mind community service, civic duty, or volunteering for a local charity or cause. But in the context of higher education, the meaning is much more dynamic.

UTEP researchers
Community engaged scholarship is one way the University gives back to the region, and provides relevant learning experiences to students at the same time. In this photo, civil engineering students are testing the water in Ascarate Lake as part of a project with the El Paso County Commissioners to improve the lake's water quality. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

At The University of Texas at El Paso, community engagement is the tie that binds the University and the community together. It allows academic resources to be used for the greater public good through partnerships and relationships with a variety of sources outside the University. Through community engagement, UTEP can achieve broader community goals in line with its public higher education mission.

In academic-based community engagement, students, faculty and staff participate in projects where the benefit offered to the community is achieved through the process of teaching and learning.

Some examples include community-based research, where the research being conducted by UTEP faculty and students takes place in the community and covers community-related issues. Another model is community participatory research, where the community is not only the subject matter of a particular study but also participates directly in the design of the study. Other models include clinical internships and student teaching opportunities.

“Community engagement can be departments, groups of students, or faculty members engaging with our community,” explained Azuri Gonzalez, director of UTEP’s Center for Civic Engagement. “There are so many different ways to engage, and the main concept to keep in mind is who benefits from this engagement. The most beautiful models are the ones where the institution, students, faculty and community members all benefit from the mutual experience.”

At UTEP, nearly 9,500 students participate in academic service-learning annually, contributing to the more than 1.1 million total hours of service performed by UTEP students each year.

Mark Lusk, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Social Work and faculty fellow for the Center for Civic Engagement at UTEP, has been actively involved in community engagement projects throughout his career. Students in his department spend hundreds of hours in the community as part of their training in practicum experiences and service-learning projects. He has seen the benefits these experiences have on students firsthand. 

“Invariably, it takes them out of their comfort zone initially until they become more skillful and informed in engaging with clients,” Lusk said. “They begin to see the world in far greater complexity, and it challenges their assumptions and requires them to grow as citizens and as future professionals.” 

Here are some examples of UTEP’s community-engaged scholarship in action.

Art from the Heart: Graphic Design Students Donate Their Talent

Anne Giangiulio, associate professor of art and graphic design, wanted to provide the students of her Graphic Design 4: Typography class with a real-world project that would strengthen their skills and the community.

In spring 2016, Giangiulio took advantage of an opportunity to do both in collaboration with the Rescue Mission of El Paso – a local homeless shelter that provides meals, showers, laundry facilities, job placement assistance, counseling and Bible study classes for those in need.

“With their new facility, the Rescue Mission desired a new look, one that would better convey its message and roles,” Giangiulio said. “They contacted me, given this class’s past reputation of taking on jobs for nonprofits and the common good.”

Student research for the project included visiting the Rescue Mission, speaking with its residents and eating at its restaurant. The class then had about a month to create their logos and trifold brochures. The six best designs were presented to the Rescue Mission.

UTEP senior Montserrat Covarrubias was one of the finalists. The experience left a lasting impression on her both personally and professionally.

“The idea of helping others motivated me beyond just getting a good grade on the project,” she said. “I wanted to help those who help others, and by trying my best, I felt like I was also helping the cause. Professionally, this experience enabled me to become more aware of the market I’m going into. Now I have a better grasp on what companies and organizations are looking for and how to deliver that.”

Accentuating Ascarate: Engineering Students Help Improve El Paso County Park

Civil engineering students in a senior design course are working closely with the El Paso County Commissioners’ Court to improve Ascarate Lake’s water quality and make Ascarate Park more functional and appealing. 

In September 2016, county commissioners provided students with five charges: restoring lake water quality and protecting it from golden algae blooms and fish kill; making walking and hiking trails compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act; locating and designing soccer fields; resolving stormwater ponding issues; and designing a scenic event amphitheater.

Under the direction of Ivonne Santiago, Ph.D., civil engineering clinical professor; Raed Aldouri, Ph.D., research associate professor and director of the Regional Geospatial Center at UTEP; and Elizabeth Walsh, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences and director of UTEP’s Border Biomedical Research Center, students have already collected data on oxygen levels, pH and depth, and will be performing further sampling for other contaminants, as well as the presence of algae. As the project progresses, they will be testing several plants to see which ones are best at controlling nutrient concentrations in the lake.

“There are 12 students in the course but we have additional students who are volunteering,” Santiago said. “We also have private consultants who volunteer as mentors for the students in the areas of structural, geotechnical, environmental, transportation, and construction management.”

A Bug’s Life: Professor Uses Living Arthropods to Educate Community on the Environment

Ron Wagler, Ph.D., associate professor of science education and founder and director of the Living Arthropod and Environmental Education Laboratory, has spent the past eight years educating the public about the Sixth Mass Extinction – an ongoing event that threatens extinction, or in some cases already has caused the mass extinction of living species due to activities by humans that are destructive to the environment.

“From an educational standpoint, the Sixth Mass Extinction provides the best way for people to fully understand the environmental impact we are having on Earth, because it encompasses all of the major human activities causing the Sixth Mass Extinction,” Wagler explained.

Wagler and his team of students perform informal and formal living arthropod presentations throughout the region at schools, museums, libraries, science centers, nature centers, community centers and other gathering places. Their presentations aim to educate the community about the essential and positive ecological services arthropods provide to humanity and how the Sixth Mass Extinction is impacting the overall health of our planet. 

Liberating Lessons: Faculty Take Liberating Structures to the Community

Lucía Durá, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of English and director of the Rhetoric and Writing Studies program at UTEP, has spent the past six years challenging the conventional structures typically used to organize how people work together that often stifle engagement and inclusion among members.

Liberating Structures are group facilitation techniques that enable peer-to-peer learning and collaboration. The techniques are based on the premise that changing structures – time, space, group configuration and the question or prompt given to a group – changes outcomes.

Durá and other members of the UTEP Liberating Structures community of practice have worked diligently to offer community organizations the opportunity to learn about these techniques. The group has provided workshops to staff at the YWCA, Project Vida, Smoke-Free Paso del Norte, El Paso Community College, House of Hope, Housing Authority of the City of El Paso, the United Way and Alamo Auto Supply, to name a few.

“In my research, I use certain Liberating Structures to conduct focus group discussions so that participants learn from each other,” Durá said. “As the director of the Rhetoric and Writing Studies program and in service/leadership activities, I design meetings and retreats using Liberating Structures to maximize energy, vision and efficiency in new ways. And as an instructor, I use them to facilitate all of my courses since I believe relationship-building is key to learning.”

Davi Kallman, a professional development graduate assistant at the Graduate School at Washington State University, completed her master’s in communication theory at UTEP in 2012. As a doctoral student, she utilizes Liberating Structures techniques in her teaching, service and research groups.

“Liberating Structures has become a way of life for me,” Kallman said. “[It] has given me the opportunity to listen first and ask questions later, which is something I have struggled with my whole life. My participation with Liberating Structures has given me a new toolkit to engage everyone in meaningful dialogue.”

Discovering STEM in the Community

El Paso is the largest urban area in the United States with no STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education center, realized UTEP Associate Professor of Mathematical Sciences Amy Wagler, Ph.D. Her next thought was, “What can I do to change this?”

The idea behind Wagler’s upcoming project is to enrich the El Paso region by providing STEM outreach in the community by way of pop-up STEM centers, tentatively called Discovery STEM Centers or Discubre CTIM Centros. These centers will be a permanent fixture at local libraries and other community centers.

The STEM centers will highlight research topics of UTEP’s Border Biomedical Research Center (BBRC) scientists and focus on making the STEM topics approachable and engaging to children ages five and older.

In the initial phase of the project, two UTEP students will have leadership roles as STEM ambassadors. Additional students will have service-learning roles with the centers starting in fall 2017. A majority of the students involved will be pre-service STEM teachers and a few may be museum studies students.

UTEP BBRC faculty will work with the lead UTEP students to devise materials for the STEM centers and make it engaging for the age groups being targeted. The students will lead the public workshops and help with rotating content and collecting data.

“These centers address an immediate and important need in our community in a way that can affect our future educational outcomes among area youth, improve job opportunities and economic development,” Wagler said. “It also has the potential to reach non-museum-going populations and provide access to informal STEM education to these youth populations.”

Marketing with a Mission: Marketing Class Competes to Benefit Local Organization

There is nothing like a little friendly competition, especially if it results in valuable hands-on experience for up and coming marketing professionals and enriches the community.

UTEP Marketing and Management Lecturer Denisse Olivas’ Multicultural Marketing class is for students interested in learning how to effectively reach the country's diverse and changing demographics. The class teaches them about minority markets in the U.S., and the different ways to communicate and create value for each market. 

Students create a one-year marketing plan for a local organization that includes the cultural and marketing tools they learned in class. This year, the El Paso Opera reached out to Olivas to collaborate with her students on ways to create awareness of their events and increase attendance. The El Paso Opera will select one student marketing plan to implement.

“There is a notion that opera is not for everyone, and they would like to educate people and show that the opera is affordable,” Olivas explained. “People don’t have to dress up in gowns or spend a lot of money to attend high-quality performances.” 

Arranging History: Student Group Archives Historic Bracero Documents

Members of the Association of Applied Borderlands History (AABH), a student group in the Department of History at UTEP, not only receive a rich lesson in history but are helping to keep the history of the Bracero Program alive.

The Bracero Program consisted of a series of bilateral agreements between Mexico and the United States from 1942 to 1965 that allowed millions of Mexican workers to come to the United States temporarily to work on labor contracts, usually agricultural.

In 2015, a graduate public history class at UTEP created an archival plan to help organize and digitize the holdings of the Border Farmworkers Center of El Paso, an organization dedicated to educating field workers about their right to a fair wage and safe work environment and alleviating the day-to-day problems that workers face. After the archival plan was created, the AABH began implementing it.

The center has an immense collection of more than 10,000 original documents from former braceros, including labor contracts, insurance policies, photographs, identification cards and personal letters. The plan to archive these documents is aimed at making them accessible to the community, the family members of the braceros, and researchers.

The students have volunteered their time each week for the past two years to ensure the plan is carried out.

Angelina Martínez is a second-year graduate student pursuing her Ph.D. in borderlands history and one of the co-chairs of the association. Her experience with AABH has provided her with opportunities she may otherwise not have had.

“I have become more involved in social justice work than I have ever been before,” Martínez said. “Working with the AABH catalyzed that. Fortunately, the AABH also offers a space where we can connect our academic skills and social justice community involvement in a way that may have been impossible if I was not a member of the organization.”

What is especially fascinating to Yolanda Chávez Leyva, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of History at UTEP, is that as the students digitize the documents and organize them, they also stop to read them. She said they end up developing a profound understanding of the importance of documents from a historian’s perspective and learn about the day-to-day Bracero Program experience.

“Few students have the opportunity to work hands-on with hundreds of primary documents,” Chávez Leyva said.