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New UM Center for Community Engagement Aims to Build Partnerships

By Michael Newsom

University of Mississippi Communications

William Teer is the assistant director of the University of Mississippi Center for Community Engagement. Submitted photo

The University of Mississippi‘s new Center for Community Engagement brings with it new resources and programs for learning, research and service to Oxford, Lafayette County and beyond.

The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning recently approved the creation of the new center. The new status will help the university take advantage of partnerships and create new opportunities for students, said Cade Smith, UM assistant vice chancellor for community engagement. 

The center’s director, Castel V. Sweet, also an assistant professor of practice in community engagement, brings a lot of experience and expertise to the university, Smith said. 

“Our community partners, students, faculty, staff and university will benefit from Dr. Castel Sweet’s leadership,” he said.

Sweet, who is new to the university, said she is excited about the work here.

“A lot was already underway when I got here, so I could begin making connections,” Sweet said. “There was already a lot of interest from the campus and the community, so when I reached out to introduce myself, they were thrilled. 

“I didn’t have to do a lot of arm-twisting about why I was here and why this work we do is important. It’s been really easy to just start throwing around ideas and working with people.”

Community engagement at the university happens in many forms, but its most important feature is easy to understand. It happens when faculty, staff and/or students work with non-higher education collaborators in the public or private sectors to accomplish a goal that benefits all parties.

Partnerships often change over time, and they may include outreach, consulting, involvement, shared leadership and community-driven work. 

The efforts are not limited to geographically defined areas. Communities also include individuals or groups connected by shared interests or practices, situational similarities, or even culture and beliefs.

This semester, the center has welcomed its first group of Bonner Scholars, a leadership program funded by the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation that connects students with a specific community partner that they will work with for four years.

There’s also a new interdisciplinary minor in community engagement, which is open to students of all majors.

“Students can think about how their degree can work in terms of them becoming a community-engaged leader, and how can they do that through their discipline of chemistry, or through their discipline of sociology or whatever their discipline may be,” Sweet said.

“That’s an interdisciplinary piece of how we are building civic-minded leaders.”

Sweet said the Ole Miss students she’s encountered are excited to engage. 

“With the start of the new semester, everyone is energized and thrilled to be back in-person, so they have a lot of things that they are looking to do, and we’re excited to be able to help them in any way possible,” she said.

William Teer, the center’s assistant director, manages the Bonner Leader program, among other duties. He comes to the center from the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, where he served as coordinator of enrollment and engagement.

“One of our challenges right now is with being new, part of what we are doing is just trying to get the word out and let people know about the work we are doing and how it can benefit them,” Teer said. “We’re very excited that we are getting to that stage.”


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