Community Partnerships and Graduate Education

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How to Choose a Doctoral Program

Over the next several weeks, students will be deciding what doctoral program to attend. This decision follows from months of researching potential programs, talking to faculty, and often visiting the campus. For students who hope to make community engagement a central part of their work, the decision takes on added complexity, as factors beyond curriculum and faculty must be considered. In this short essay, I want to highlight some of those factors.


Existing Partnerships

When coursework is taken into account, most graduate students only have about two to three years to engage in a community partnership. Effective partnerships, however, take significant time to develop. For this reason, many students would benefit most from choosing a doctoral program where a project has existed for a significant period of time. Working within this project will allow the student to understand the complexity of such work, witness what collaboration entails, and begin to understand the range of work possible. In the process, they can also learn the skill sets that were used to initiate the project.


It might seem to be a more attractive option to attend a program where you will be “allowed to develop your own project.” Certainly, a lot can be learned from such work, particularly if you also learn how to build a program that will continue after your departure. The graduate program will also benefit from your labor. It is doubtful, however, that such a scenario actually prepares you with the skills/insights necessary to take on such work in your next institution. This can lead to early mistakes which can create long-term issues for junior scholars.


So, while I would never discourage someone from beginning a partnership as a graduate student, I would encourage students whenever possible to learn by attending programs with existing programs that can model the fullest articulation of such work.


Funding Strategies

A central part of any community partnership will be resource development/allocation. Within a project, partners will often have to assess what internal resources are available, and what outside resources are required. One of the reasons to attend a program with existing partnerships is to take part in such conversations, to gain a sense of how such planning occurs. Within this context, students can also learn how to develop, apply for, and manage grants.


Learning how to write grants is often portrayed as a mercenary skill. In fact, grants written for community partnerships are a central way of thinking through issues of power, leadership, and collaboration. Grants directly confront who will control the requested funds, how decisions will be made, and how the funds will be distributed to ensure work is achieved by all those involved. To some extent, grants are the mechanism to establish the working patterns of partnerships. For that reason, graduate students interested in community partnerships must engage in such work.

In addition to gaining experience in partnership development, the language of grants helps students clarify their own sense of the work. Grants are morally-based enterprises. In writing a grant, you are being asked to consider how your ethics intersect with another institution – often in language that is more direct then academic discourse. As such, they force the writer to make clear his or her beliefs and values. As students begins doctoral work, such clarity will allow them to build projects which they find personally and politically sustaining beyond the specifics of any degree program.


So, when choosing a graduate program, I would explore what opportunities are available for engaging in grant work, what faculty have expertise in such work, and whether other students in the program have gained such experience.


Interdisciplinary/Intercommunity Partnerships

Community partnerships are necessarily interdisciplinary. It would be arrogant to assume that our discipline of composition and rhetoric provides all the tools to navigate the dynamics of a neighborhood or community project. For this reason, students should explore whether a doctoral program has aligned faculty from other departments. Students should also consider whether the doctoral program has non-university-based community scholars who can act as advisors as well. Finally, students should inquire whether there is room within the required curriculum to take courses outside of their “home department” and enroll in internships with community partners.


Here I should add that any successful project I have undertaken in the past twenty years has always been informed by Anthropology, Education, Women/Gender Studies, and Geography professors among others. I have worked with religious and labor leaders; block captains and community elders. Without this consistent dialogue among a broad range of faculty, the work would have been inadequately theorized and enacted. For graduate students intending on taking on community partnerships as a central part of their career, Gramsci’s insight that “everyone is an intellectual” needs to be experienced from the beginning of their education.


So, in considering the advisors/faculty within a doctoral program, students should make sure the list includes more than ‘names in our field,’ but also names other disciplines, communities, and individuals as necessary to gain the education required to engage in community partnership work.


One final note: Mentorship

While not directly related to community engagement, I recommend asking current students within a doctoral program the following questions: How often do you meet with your advisor? How quickly is work returned to you? A doctoral program can have all the opportunities in the world to engage in community work, but it if fails to take care of the intellectual development of its own community members, then I would not attend.


(My answer to those questions: In-person meetings no more than 8 days apart; written work commented upon and returned within 10 days.)

About the Author
Steve Parks is an Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Syracuse University. He has spent the past twenty years forming community based partnerships, publications, and pedagogies in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Middle East. For more information, visit: