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Building Community Outside Bethel’s Walls

With funding from an Edgren Scholars Award, Professor of Anthropology Harley Schreck and Rita Mecicar ’19 evaluate Bethel’s 20-year partnership with Frogtown and Summit-University.

By Cherie Suonvieri ’15, content specialist

July 05, 2018 | 2 p.m.

Building Community Outside Bethel’s Walls

Rita Mecicar ’19 and Professor of Anthropology Harley Schreck spent the summer of 2017 assessing the impact of Bethel’s community partnership with the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods.

About eight miles southeast of Bethel University’s 3900 Bethel Drive campus in Arden Hills, situated in one of St. Paul’s oldest neighborhoods, are two communities: Frogtown and Summit-University (FSU). Together, they’re a hub of urban activity, rich in history and culture.

In 1998, Bethel struck a partnership with the FSU communities. Since its inception, the intent of the partnership has been to be mutually beneficial—the communities receive services and opportunities, while Bethel students are able to serve and learn within an urban setting.

“The partnership helps Bethel achieve some level of legitimacy,” Professor of Anthropology Harley Schreck says. “We don’t like to think of ourselves as an urban campus, but our very existence and our role is explained by our place in the city.’’

The partnership recently celebrated 20 years, which was one of the reasons Schreck deemed it an appropriate time to assess its successes and shortcomings. With funding from a 2017 Edgren Scholars Award, Schreck and Rita Mecicar ’19, a sociocultural studies and reconciliation studies double major, spent the summer of 2017 researching everything from the Bethel FSU Partnership’s roots to its present-day impact.

“One of the main goals of the research is finding out what isn’t working and could be done better, and then doing something about it."

— Rita Mecicar ’19, a sociocultural studies and reconciliation studies double major

After looking at studies of other university-community partnerships, Schreck and Mecicar found that past evaluations focused specifically on student-learning elements and benefits to the university. But Schreck and Mecicar’s project sought to address the impact on the FSU communities as well. “When it comes to listening to the community about how the partnership has effected the community, there’s been a real gap in the literature,” Schreck says.

Working together to shorten that gap, Schreck and Mecicar gathered data through a series of interviews with 19 FSU community members. When transcribed and compiled, the interview transcripts reached about 250 pages. Then, based on the themes that presented themselves throughout the interviews, Schreck and Mecicar created codes to categorize the information.

Several questions guided their research. First, has Bethel been a good partner? Second, has the partnership built social capital? And third, has the partnership enhanced and supported student learning? 

On paper, opportunities for student involvement in the partnership can be placed in two categories: service learning or community engagement.  On the ground, though, these opportunities take many forms, like journalism students partnering with Maxfield Elementary students to produce a school newspaper or Bethel students living and learning in the neighborhood through the Frogtown Urban Living Experience. For the communities, the partnership has provided avenues for networking, scholarships to study at Bethel, and opportunities to develop curriculum and teach at Bethel.

According to Tanden Brekke, who works in the FSU neighborhoods as Bethel’s assistant director of community engagement, the commitment to mutuality is a large contributor to the partnership’s longevity. Brekke speaks of a “fundamental DNA” that was established during the first year of the partnership. “We asked, how does this not become about a project or an initiative, but how can it be about relationships?” Brekke says. “And out of those relationships, how can ideas emerge?”

As anticipated, the project uncovered some areas for improvement—but that was the point. When closing each interview with community members, Schreck and Mecicar asked what they would like to see happen in the future of the partnership. “One of the main goals of the research is finding out what isn’t working and could be done better, and then doing something about it,” Mecicar says. “The responses that we got to that question were amazing, and we combined them into a list of all the things the partnership could be doing.”

Throughout the research project, Schreck and Mecicar have been in close communication with the Partnership Advisory Committee (PAC), a panel of Bethel community members and residents of the FSU neighborhoods who foster relationships to encourage reciprocity and maintain the trust that has been built. Schreck gave a final report to the PAC on April 17.

“We need to sit with this for a while and unpack it before we decide which ways we’re going to go,” Brekke says.

Last November, when Schreck and Mecicar presented their research in the Bethel University Library, Mecicar offered a spiritual reflection on Bethel’s role in the partnership. “We aren’t going there to evangelize, but first and foremost we should be going there to pour out our love on the community,” she said, referencing 1 Corinthians 12:27, which describes all of God’s people as being part of one body. “How can we be one body if we aren’t acquainted with the other parts and don’t know them?”

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Find out more about faculty-student research opportunities at Bethel, including the Edgren Scholars Program, which awards annual grants to faculty-student research teams.

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