Striving for Symbiosis: Developing a Partnership to Serve the Community and the Mission of the Liberal Arts Education

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2010

Howard University
Washington, D.C.

Community-Based Learning and the Liberal Arts

Marymount Manhattan College (MMC) is an urban, independent, liberal arts college. The mission of the college is to educate a socially and economically diverse student body by fostering intellectual achievement and personal growth and by providing opportunities for career development. Inherent in this mission is the intent to develop an awareness of social, political, cultural and ethical issues, in the belief that this awareness will lead to concern for, participation in, and improvement of society. To accomplish this mission, the college offers a strong program in the arts and sciences for students of all ages, as well as substantial pre-professional preparation. Central to these efforts is the particular attention given to the individual student. Marymount Manhattan College seeks to be a resource and learning center for the metropolitan community.

According to John H. Newman, “The purpose of a liberal arts education is to open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, and eloquent expression. . . “(78).

By exposing students to a diverse body of knowledge as well as the tools for examining and analyzing knowledge, a liberal arts education empowers students to think for themselves. However, because knowledge is contextual, MMC explores avenues outside of the classroom where students encounter the lived experience of people within the community, learn from such experiences and contribute toward improving the lives of people and the community. Time spent at community organizations often reveals the varying viewpoints and competing interests that complicate social change and that demand strong critical-thinking and problem-solving skills lacking in the well-structured examples and case studies in textbooks.1

Our Community-based Learning Initiative, which partners courses with not-for-profit organizations like EIS Housing Resource Center (EIS)2 and Positive Health Project (PHP),3 offers our students a unique opportunity to learn and contribute in a practical way to the growth and betterment of the society in which we live. Students learn the mission and daily operations of the community partner and contribute by assisting in tasks that either directly impact the organization’s clients or indirectly benefit clients and directly benefit the organization, while putting skills and theory from the classroom into practice. In one ongoing project with PHP, students make presentations that educate people on basic health care issues and safe sex practices. These presentations do not only develop students’ public speaking skills, they also expose students to populations they may not have had contact with before, and inculcate valuable health information that will help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and reduce risky behavior. PHP gains advocates and educators, and simultaneously fulfills the educational component of its mission when working with our students.

A liberal arts education contributes to a person’s happiness. By exposing our students to multiple ideas and perspectives, giving them opportunities to learn both inside and outside the classroom, and to contribute to improving their immediate community, we hope they obtain some sense of fulfillment and happiness. Research from the fields of positive psychology and the science of learning also suggest that being presented with challenges that match the skills of the individual, often inherent in community-based projects, also provide a sense of fulfillment in addition to the more intrinsic happiness associated with altruism. One of our students brought joy and happiness to a community partner, her family, and Marymount Manhattan College when she painted a beautiful mural for the organization and the people it serves. We are proud of our community partners and look forward to fostering and maintaining those relationships.

Signs of Mutually Beneficial Partnerships

Taking advantage of the liberal arts educational opportunities in the community, with the support of the classroom experience, has been challenging and rewarding. The process of development required support within and outside of our institution. Four years ago, with the help of two modest grants from Pennsylvania/New York Campus Compact, Marymount Manhattan College launched the Community-Based Learning Initiative. One grant funded the stipend of an Americorp VISTA member for three years; the other, awarded to a collaborative team of the City College of New York (lead institution), New York University, and MMC, provided stipends for MMC faculty engaged in service-learning and the opportunity to exchange best practices with others in the service-learning network. Over the past four years we have gained valuable experience and formed wonderful partnerships, including our partnership with EIS Housing Resource Center. Such partnerships are integral to fulfilling our liberal arts mission outside of the classroom.

Reflecting on this mutually beneficial relation, EIS and MMC have compiled a short list of factors that have made this a strong, enduring college-community connection: good fit in both size and location, a shared educational mission, sufficient administrative support and serving fewer well.

MMC and EIS are both small organizations located in the upper east side of Manhattan, within walking distance of one another. The similarity in size means that each organization has a noticeable impact on the other. EIS is neither overwhelmed by the number of students in each course, nor does that number of students seem too few to bother with as they might to a community organization with thousands of volunteers. MMC’s students are well-known to EIS staffers and administrators, who match each student to a service activity he or she can successfully complete. The direct contact with staff and clients is often unavailable at larger non-profit organizations where a volunteer coordinator manages large volumes of volunteers and could not possibly personalize the experience. The mentorship role EIS staffers take on is analogous to the mentorship role of faculty and staff on MMC’s campus because of the low faculty to student ratio. The proximity of the two institutions has also proven invaluable as it provides easy access for planning sessions and volunteer activities. Students are reluctant to add extensive travel time to their placements, as travel in the metro area easily doubles a two-hour weekly service commitment. The proximity also makes it incredibly easy for the class to make an initial visit to EIS together, an important opportunity to bond the students together and demonstrate the strong relationship MMC has with EIS. This sort of activity is simply not possible when organizations are located farther away.

A mutually shared educational mission advances campus-community partnerships immensely. When the community partner’s objectives include educating the community about its mission, staff members are more likely to view the partnership favorably and participate as co-educators. Taking the time, before a project starts, to share the learning goals of the course has helped EIS match students with meaningful tasks, which helps students make connections between their coursework and their service activities and realize how their talents can be used for social change. These pre-project meetings affirm the additional goals of a community-based project learning about social justice, the joys of volunteering, and career alternatives to the corporate world. For example, students designing a web site for EIS, learn more than the technical expertise needed to create the site. They also learn about the problems of landlord-tenant relations in New York City; the means of mediation, advocacy and persuasion; the process of integrating the core values of an organization in a design; the minutiae of working with clients; and the fulfillment of making a difference. These experiences do not only expose students to the realities of housing problems in a metropolis; they also teach them practical lessons of the workplace and open to them opportunities for internships and career development. Furthermore, EIS received more than a new web site designed to meet their needs, it also benefitted from an opportunity to increase awareness of tenant rights and New York City housing issues.

For partnerships to be long-lasting, both the college and the community partner need to have sufficient administrative support to facilitate communication, track and report student attendance, and assess the project upon its conclusion. In addition, administrators should be willing to step in when needed: to accompany students for an on-site visit; to check in with students and faculty; to organize events; and to communicate regularly with partners.Our experience shows that poor student attendance at a site is a signal that the partnership is not working. Possibly the consequences to the partner of student absenteeism has not been clearly explained, or the student may not feel he or she is doing anything meaningful. Volunteers stay focused and motivated when they see the direct connection between a task and its result. If the college and community partner work together, they can quickly identify and correct problems as they arise. Strong administrative support on the college side also helps to maintain continuity between projects and semesters that often can disrupt the flow of volunteers to community organizations. College administrators have a larger picture of the core partnerships the college has, the partners’ needs, and the interests and needs of faculty, knowledge that can help to match courses with community organizations for future projects.

While New York offers a plethora of not-for-profits to work with, MMC has chosen to develop fewer, closer partnerships with organizations like EIS. This approach developed after the realization that it simply was not practical (from any organization’s perspective) to maintain numerous relationships with numerous partners where student volunteers were not consistently involved. MMC now tries to have at least one community-based learning course at each organization each semester and to encourage volunteers, internships, and other support. Because of MMC’s commitment to providing volunteers to partners like EIS, our partners are more willing to explore new projects, embark on experimentation and serve our students well. We encourage faculty to think creatively about developing projects and meeting learning goals with existing partners before seeking out new partners. Our strongest projects have been with our strongest and deepest partners.

Partnerships are true partnerships when they begin to show signs of symbiosis, or mutual dependence and benefit. Both parties (the community organization and the college) need similar goals and results demonstrating that what has been put into the relationship led to a measurable gain in order to continue the partnership. From a liberal arts college perspective, that means the liberal arts mission must be fulfilled by the community projects initiated by the college. MMC’s projects with EIS have exposed students to diverse and (often) new ideas, helped students develop analytical skills, experience the context associated with the subjects they are studying, and explore career opportunities as well as provided students with a practical way to contribute to the community. Of course, the best testimonials for community-based learning come directly from the main beneficiaries: the students and the community partners we work with. One Marymount staffer remembers walking to EIS for an introductory meeting with an international student, who asked: “What kinds of problems could tenants have?” In the course of the semester the student found out and wrote a memorable letter to Audrey Tannen, Executive Director of EIS, which included this remark: “It was one of the greatest experiences I have had in my college years. Thank you very much.”

1See Eyler, J. and D. E. Giles, Jr. (1999). Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. Pages 16-17, 102-104, 110-112 for compelling data about ill-structured problems in service-learning projects.

2 See for more information about EIS Housing Resource Center’s mission.

3 See for more information about Positive Health Project’s mission.


Eyler, J. & Giles, Jr., D. E. (1999). Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Newman, J. H. (1990). Idea of a university. Notre Dame/London: University of Notre Dame Press.

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Spring 2011: Engaging Students in the Community and the World