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OCEP at USF Works to Raise Awareness Locally and Globally

The Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships at the University of South Florida provides research grants and encourages participation in community service learning programs.

Video by Katy Hennig

TAMPA, Fla. (July 22, 2015) - The Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships (OCEP) at the University of South Florida is in place to expand and strengthen connections between the university and the community locally and globally in support of USF’s strategic priorities: student success, research and innovation, building key partnerships and sound financial management.

“It’s one thing to read about a case example in a classroom in a book, but entirely different to go out into the community and look at a problem and how best to solve it,” said Bonnie Silvestri, Director of Strategic Communications for OCEP. “It’s so empowering for students to be able to go out there and figure out what is happening and how they can work to fix it.”

The goal is to encourage more participation in service learning programs that have a far-reaching and multifaceted benefit by connecting faculty and students with community projects.

“Service learning, which involves faculty and students going out into the community and working in community based projects, is a high impact practice and it’s been known to lead to retention and jobs and all of the reasons that students come to college,” said Silvestri.

OCEP continually works to raise awareness on campus at USF and throughout the Tampa Bay Community about the support and grants available for collaborative research projects bridging students and faculty with the funding needed to advance research goals, encourage community engagement projects and provide service learning opportunities.

USF is positioned at the center of a diverse community in the Tampa Bay region and OCEP creates unique opportunities to grow partnerships by integrating teaching, research, leadership and service that benefits the USF students and faculty, but also the community. The grants have enhanced numerous projects throughout Tampa Bay, ranging from programs to feed school children on the weekends to community gardens that enrich and reconnect cultures.

Professor Roberta Baer and USF graduate student Chloe Sweetman in the Tampa Bay Community Garden.

Chloe Sweetman is a graduate student at USF participating in a sustainability research project with Anthropology Professor Roberta Bear and has generated a program to support a community garden for Burmese refugees in Tampa Bay, providing the chance to grow food, in traditional cultural ways, and also earn a living by selling the produce.

“It was such an amazing experience to be able to do this with such an open and warm and friendly population as the Burmese refugees here in Tampa Bay,” said Sweetman. “They were incredibly welcoming and willing to share about themselves and their culture and their lives and it was such an amazing experience, not only to be there and to learn about all of these academic skills, but also just to learn about these people one on one, people to people.”

USF Anthropology Professor David Himmelgreen is currently working on an OCEP funded project with several graduate students. The anthropologists are working in tandem with Feeding America Tampa Bay to research and study the effects of a backpack program, a food subsidy project that provides trays of food to low-income students over the weekends.

Food items provided in Professor David Himmelgreen's backpack program.

“There are long term consequences when children do not have proper nutrition,” said Himmelgreen. “A lot of these kids are coming from food insecure households. So this food is intended to kind of help a little bit during the course of the weekend to help even in a small way to mitigate the effects of hunger and food insecurity in the household.” The research is intended to provide data to guide improvements in the non-profit program. According to Himmelgreen, “they have been doing this for a while, but we don’t have any data about what is working and what isn’t working, how could we improve it?” By tracking the students’ progress and gathering data on the benefits, from health to grades in school, the research team will provide beneficial feedback on the productivity of the non-profit program.

Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman is a sociology professor at USF with a research focus on family studies. “One of the most exciting parts of my experience, really the hallmark of my time here is I’ve been able to launch the USF in Brazil program,” Hordge-Freeman said. “I’ve had the chance for the past two years to take a group of students with me to Brazil and that has been really great.” Hordge-Freeman is working with a grant provided by OCEP and explains how the funding has allowed the research to develop and grow with the help of USF students collaborating on a language project in Brazil.

Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman (far right) and USF students in Brazil.

“Recently I received a service learning mini grant from the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships, which allowed me to have students interact with community organizations in Brazil and so this was important because I wanted students to feel as though they were being global citizens, not just global tourists,” Hordge-Freeman said. “I say this all the time but I think by having a service learning program it really allowed them to make a concrete contribution to an organization in Brazil through language training.”

The experiential learning dynamic that community service provides students is crucial to a successful college experience and connects the community with the resources that a high caliber research institution can provide.

According to Chloe Sweetman, the experience provided by the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships changed her focus and helped to develop her career path pursuing a graduate degree in Public Health at USF’s Morsani College of Medicine. "OCEP has been a rather incredible source of funding and encouragement for this service learning project and community outreach," said Sweetman. "They have been supportive of Dr. Baer and her research that we as students were able to help with, but also encouraging students to join in on from the get go. They really emphasize the importance of getting students involved and have this opportunity to be able to go out and understand what is in the classroom and how it translates to the real world.”

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