4 strategies for engaging students in community building

Marquette University’s award-winning program shows how strengthening town-gown relations benefits everyone
By: | February 5, 2020
(Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash)(Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash)
Elizabeth Killian, president of CAMPus Impact, is a senior at Marquette University’s College of Education in Milwaukee.

Elizabeth Killian, president of CAMPus Impact, is a senior at Marquette University’s College of Education in Milwaukee.

Community engagement should be a focus for all colleges and universities, but especially those in urban environments. Marquette University has no physical boundaries with the city of Milwaukee. This gives students easy access to many of the city’s assets, including the lakefront. However, many students do not see a need to go to—and have negative perceptions of—the Near West Side.

That’s why the Center for Peacemaking worked with students to launch CAMPus Impact alongside the Near West Side Partners Inc., a community and economic development organization. CAMPus stands for the seven Near West Side neighborhoods, as they all start with a C, A, M or P, and the entire Marquette community (“us”). CAMPus Impact symbolizes the impact that the Near West Side and Marquette can have on each other. Its main goals for students are to serve the community and to experience what Milwaukee has to offer—all while building relationships with those who live and work in the surrounding neighborhoods. 


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Recently, CAMPus Impact won the 2019 International Town & Gown Association’s Intern Challenge due to hard work and community dedication. We recognize that Marquette students are community members of the Near West Side, making up about 10,000 of the 28,000 residents. We need to not only acknowledge this fact, but also make the most of our Marquette experience by supporting the already active community around us. Using SIGN as an acronym, here are four ways to help students foster a cohesive university-city community.

  1. Simple: Community engagement needs to start somewhere, and it can start small and in a simple way. Any planned event does not and should not be an exaggerated, daylong one. It should be authentic and short. College students would prefer spending a few hours of their weekends building and fostering community. Students have short attention spans and may not sign up for activities they don’t think they will benefit from.
  1. Interesting: CAMPus Impact events are either experiential or service focused. No matter what we are planning, we make sure that there is some sort of interesting factor. We ask ourselves: What is different about this event that will intrigue students? and How enjoyable will this event be? When planning events, we need to keep in mind the students’ best interests and our partners’ assets to create something that will benefit everyone.

    At the end of the day, we are grateful for the opportunity to go out into the community and meet the people who work and live there because I am sure that they are glad to see us, too.

  1. Glad: Regardless of the activity that provides a space for students to make and build connections with residents and employees in the neighborhood, everyone should feel glad they participated. Yes, there will be times when we, as students, are outside in the cold picking up trash, but at the end of the day, we are grateful for the opportunity to go out into the community and meet the people who work and live there because I am sure that they are glad to see us, too.
  1. New: Lastly, we need to make sure students are participating in something new—something they have never done before and would not necessarily do on their own without having a place to sign up and explore with others.

Read: Future Shock: Exploring town-gown relationships


CAMPus Impact created the Fall Break Service Immersion Experience during which students go to the Near West Side to live and work with a variety of nonprofits over fall break. A student who attended said that it was “an amazing opportunity to strengthen and build new friendships with not only other students, but many members of the community and nonprofit organizations.” This comment is what should give us all hope when planning and creating events for community engagement. This is a feeling that we want every student to have at least once during their college experience.


Elizabeth Killian, president of CAMPus Impact, is a senior at Marquette University’s College of Education and will graduate this May. She is from Long Island, New York, and has spent a good portion of her undergraduate career focused on community engagement in Milwaukee. Over 2 1/2 years, CAMPus Impact has held 36 meetings, 13 service events and 12 experiential events with over 70 students involved.