Behind the Creation of Community-Engaged Learning Courses

Learning does not just happen on the Hill. Over the past decade, the Kenyon community has worked to expand educational opportunities beyond Gambier.


When students come to Kenyon from all over the world, they may read great literature in Lentz House, do research for a chemistry class in Chalmers Library or speak Arabic in Ascension Hall. However, learning does not just happen on the Hill. Over the past decade, there has been an effort from various members of the Kenyon community to expand students’ learning beyond Gambier.

Students in downtown Mount Vernon
Assistant Professor of Film Hao Zhou included a trip to Mount Vernon’s Memorial Theater for his film students in fall 2023.

Well before the Wright Center opened in 2017, and the receipt of the Mellon Grant that created the Office for Community Partnerships (OCP) in 2014, individual faculty were collaborating with local community members to enhance students’ learning. One of those faculty members was Professor of Sociology Jan Thomas who later became associate provost and after that, director of OCP.

When Thomas came to Kenyon in 1996, some of her colleagues were already working with the community in their courses. In developing classes with community involvement, Thomas recalls asking community members to be involved in the classroom. “I started with just, ‘Could you come talk to my class? I want them to be able to apply the readings to the real world.’ So I invited people from the community to come talk about their work and their perspective on issues we had been discussing in class.”

In one of those courses, “Sociology of Health and Illness” (SOCY 224), Thomas invited participation for Knox County community members who worked in health care settings. “We had conversations with the CEO of the hospital, the health commissioner, a surgeon and a family practice doctor about their work and their views on health care,” Thomas said. In her research methods courses, her classes always collaborated with the community on a project. “For example,” Thomas said, “we assisted the health department with surveys and data analysis, looked at sex education in the high school and partnered with an MVNU (Mount Vernon Nazarene University) methods class to look at hooking up at Kenyon and MVNU.”

In 2013, at the same time Sean Decatur became Kenyon’s 19th president, conversations started about creating a formalized program building upon the community-involved classes. Kenyon decided to apply for the Sense of Place: College and Community Through Experiential Learning and Service Mellon Grant to create the OCP. Upon the creation of the office, Jen Odenweller was hired as director, and Professor of Spanish Clara Román-Odio became the faculty director.

Odenweller and Román-Odio worked together to establish community-engaged learning (CEL) courses. Thomas, who oversaw the administration of the grant as associate provost, explained, “Clara’s role was to train faculty in the pedagogy of community-engaged learning, and Jen’s role was to develop community partners. So when faculty are trained and have their syllabus ready, what kind of community partner do they want to work with to accomplish the learning goals? Jen was also on the other side saying, in the community, where are the needs? Is there a project that would be great for community-engaged learning class?”

Thomas describes Román-Odio as someone who pushed for the implementation of CEL pedagogy among the faculty. “She was really that one person that said we need to do this as a college, and I think it was that sort of the right thing at the right time,” Thomas said of Román-Odio’s passion.

“The first step for me was to create CEL courses and measure outcomes,” Román-Odio said. She created a class called “Cultural Productions of the Borderlands,” where students went to Mount Vernon’s Columbia Elementary School to understand and see the theories and representations of borderlands in practice. “My students grapple with issues of intersectionality, borders, colonial power through deep critical reflection and by recycling the theories of the borderlands and creative writing by people of color,” Román-Odio said. “They read children’s stories, and they talk about what it means to be different or to be bilingual or be on those borderlands with the fifth graders.”

As faculty director, Román-Odio worked to train faculty on pedagogical best practices for CEL courses. One of the first things she did was to develop a faculty learning community (FLC) in collaboration with Kenyon’s Center for Innovative Pedagogy. “The specific objective of this FLC was to support the creation and delivery of courses that utilize CEL pedagogy to promote the development of personal and social responsibility and civic engagement,” Román-Odio said. In the FLC, which is a group of professors learning about a subject, Román-Odio worked with faculty to develop their syllabi, so they could teach courses after the training program. “Everything that you are going to do that semester has to be reflected in that syllabus,” she said. “It’s a contract.” 

To help get faculty buy-in, Román-Odio also worked with faculty on how to incorporate CEL into their research as well as their evaluations for promotion and tenure. Joe Klesner, who was Kenyon’s provost at the time, described Román-Odio as playing a big role in making sure that CEL was in front of professors — for example, at faculty meetings. “Without a strong faculty champion, it probably would have taken us a lot longer to get to have CEL courses across the curriculum,” said Klesner. Additionally, Román-Odio partnered with the then-newly formed OCP to connect faculty members with community members to be able to develop CEL courses. 

While Román-Odio was getting faculty buy-in and leading the FLC, Odenweller was helping to arrange additional relationship-building opportunities for both faculty and community members. “The early stages of supporting the coursework development were really around thinking about what faculty needed to think differently about in order to offer a course they maybe were accustomed to teaching many times,” said Odenweller. OCP offered workshops, brought in outside speakers who had done the work before at peer institutions and discussed the goals that they had for their class and their academic departments.

Odenweller aimed to meet faculty where they were when assisting professors in teaching CEL courses. She had conversations with faculty over coffee and hosted mixers with community members and faculty at the Wright Center to help facilitate the creation of CEL courses. “We really treated those as community conversations,” said Odenweller. “A lot of those engagements planted seeds for those faculty members and peers in their department to become more familiar with what opportunities look like.”

While working with faculty was new to Odenweller, she was used to working with the community in her previous role as executive director of the United Way of Knox County. Klesner remembers being impressed by the amount of people Odenweller knew in the community. “We were looking for someone who had good community connections,” Klesner said of the search criteria. In her role with the United Way, Odenweller was responsible for facilitating community-building strategies through program investments 
made in Knox County organizations that addressed health, financial stability and educational needs of the community. Many of these organizations became close partners of Kenyon.

Odenweller hired Alyssa Gómez Lawrence, who grew up in Knox County and was a 2010 graduate of Kenyon, in early 2016 to help establish the office. Gómez Lawrence was able to provide Odenweller with perspectives about Kenyon culture.

“I will never forget her interview for the position, when she shared ways in which she wished she could have experienced more collaboration with those off of the Kenyon Hill,” Odenweller said. “The search committee knew we had found someone special who would be a key element in building the OCP with the larger community in mind.”

They initially started to look at what other schools had done with similar types of offices. Odenweller worked to develop rules of engagement, such as treating everyone as equals in the process. “It wasn’t an Office for Community Engagement, it was an Office for Community Partnerships,” she said. “We made a very literal choice in establishing an office designed to foster mutually beneficial community partnership building.”

“The value of internships and the quality and quantity of internships feels very robust … I can feel that in the community.” 

Jennifer Odenweller
Executive Director, Ariel Foundation

While Odenweller had connections with the local community, Gómez Lawrence developed relationships with departments across campus seeing if they were already working with the community. “We also had to make sure that we are creating relationships with other offices and not remaining siloed,” she said. “We started meeting with each office and said, ‘Hey, we’re here. Great to meet you. Let’s talk about ways that we can collaborate, or maybe we just keep checking in.’” 

After Odenweller left Kenyon in 2018, Thomas transitioned into being director of OCP. The role shifted more so that Thomas could oversee and be a face in the community for all the events that a Kenyon representative was asked to attend. “The shift was actually having more presence in the community beyond just the CEL courses,” Thomas said. 

The faculty director job also shifted to what the position is today. Now a faculty fellow, the position is a conduit between the faculty and OCP. The job duties are to help lead one-on-one training and continue to foster the CEL courses. “If faculty really wanted to talk to another faculty member in the office, that’s who they could reach out to,” Gómez Lawrence said of the faculty fellow’s role. “They also are more of a support system for these workshops or these faculty learning communities.”

At the same time, the type of training offered by OCP was expanded as the institutional knowledge around how to create and teach a CEL course started to form. The training offered to faculty today consists of participating in an FLC, attending a workshop or having a one-on-one conversation with a faculty member who has taught a CEL course. 

“We like the idea of having a CEL faculty cohort for exactly that mentoring piece,” Gómez Lawrence said. She often connects professors who are interested in creating a CEL class to talk to another professor who has experience teaching a CEL course. 

Additionally, as CEL pedagogy has become more widely known across academia, newer faculty coming to Kenyon may have already experienced teaching CEL class before. Klesner recalls that even in the mid-2010s, CEL was a high-impact practice that new professors may have learned about. “Younger faculty, newer faculty coming to the college who were coming out of grad school, came with an excitement about doing a CEL course.” 

Overall, Gómez Lawrence still represents the training philosophy that Odenweller held when leading OCP. “We try to meet a variety of people where they are, and that being just a variety of different levels,” Gómez Lawrence said. 

Today, not only has there been an increase in the number of CEL courses offered, but also the partnerships that have been created across campus. One of those connections is the Career Development Office (CDO). Together, these offices formed the Kenyon Community Internship Program (KCIP), which allows students to work with local nonprofits on various projects. “KCIP was the brainchild of the CDO and our office,” said Gómez Lawrence. “So we went from two internships in 2017 to 16 this semester, and they were all continued from last semester.” 

“The value of internships and the quality and quantity of internships feels very robust, is how I would say that has developed and strengthened over time,” said Odenweller, who now is the executive director at Ariel Foundation. “I can feel that in the community. I’m aware of that, even though I don’t personally experience KCIP.” 

One of the community partners, who has two interns this semester and in the past has hosted a CEL course, is the Area Development Foundation (ADF), which strives to help foster economic growth by attracting employers to Knox County and supporting the existing communities in the area. Jeff Gottke, the president of ADF, appreciates the commitment that Kenyon has made in the Knox County community. “We’re very lucky to be able to harness the brain power of the Kenyon students and faculty and the resources of Kenyon College in order to bring those very valuable projects to bear across the county,” Gottke said.

The Office for Community Partnerships has come a long way since its founding nearly a decade ago. In the 2016-17 academic year, 228 students participated in a CEL course in one of 19 offerings. This academic year, 704 students took one of the 43 CEL courses offered.

The future remains bright, with Professor of Dance Julie Brodie taking over next year as the third director of OCP. “I think she’s a perfect person to do it,” said Klesner. “She’s been one of the biggest proponents of CEL work and one of the biggest users of it.”

In the past, Brodie has taught a CEL course, “Directed Teaching” (DANC 240), in which students would teach movement to children in elementary schools. Gómez Lawrence recalls Brodie being one of the early adopters of CEL courses, teaching the course multiple times over the past eight years. “She is another person who’s really passionate about the work that they do and really making a connection with community members,” Gómez Lawrence said. She believes that Brodie will fit right into the position, while also offering fresh perspectives on how to engage in community partnerships. 

While Brodie transitions from her office in Bolton Dance Studio in Gambier to the Wright Center in Mount Vernon, students continue to do the same with their learning. At the conclusion of each CEL course, students give feedback, so that faculty members can measure outcomes that they had hoped to accomplish. “CEL courses are lauded as being things that enhance learning, and when I’m reading most of these evaluations, it just is very clear that that’s true,” Gómez Lawrence said. “It’s just great to see that students are experiencing what we hope they would.”

On the other side of the partnership, community members value Kenyon’s commitment to the area. “The Office for Community Partnerships was able to bring Kenyon’s resources and identity off the Hill and into the community, and that has been a huge benefit to ADF and to other entities around the county over the past eight years,” said Gottke, the Area Development Foundation president. “You don’t see colleges making that type of effort to immerse themselves in the community as much as Kenyon does, and I think that is very, very valuable.”

Satisfaction with CEL Courses

Among surveyed community partners, faculty and students:

  • 100%reported that they would recommend collaborating with Kenyon.


  • 95%felt that moderate/immersive CEL courses helped advance their organizational missions and goals.


  • 95%were impressed by students' professionalism and creativity.


  • 90%agree that the benefits outweigh the extra effort.


  • 100%felt they developed knowledge/skills they would not have otherwise.


  • 90%experienced professional and personal growth.


  • 95%would recommend a CEL course to another Kenyon student.


  • 100%felt they increased their knowledge of and connection with the greater community.


  • 85%experienced academic and personal growth and developed a number of transferable skills.


Phone Number
Alyssa Gómez Lawrence
Assistant Director in the Office for Community Partnerships