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Engaged Students, Course Design, and Child Welfare as Course Topic: Reflections from a Community Partner, University Professor, and Communication Studies Undergraduate Students 

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By: Elizabeth Suter, Professor, Communication Studies & Lauren Dartt, Tennyson Center for Children

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Across the 2020-2021 academic year, we, Lauren Dartt and Eliza(beth) Suter, collaboratively developed a community-engaged project. Lauren is Director of Marketing & Communications for Tennyson Center for Children, a non-profit serving children and families in Colorado impacted by trauma from child neglect and abuse. Beth is a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Denver. We launched the project in Beth’s Spring 2021 “Family Discourses, Power, &Culture,” a 3000-level special topics course for Communication Studiesmajors.  

The project asked students to research the child welfare system and Tennyson Center – historically and today – and build a business case to invest in outreach to their generation. Students bridged their generational positionalities and knowledge gained through research and discovery to advise Tennyson on the best ways to expose Gen Z and Millennials to realities of child welfare in Colorado and call them to action via Peer-to-Peer Campaigning.    

We designed the project to positively impact both students and Tennyson. We hoped that in researching the child welfare landscape – its history, the profile of children and families in the system, and the great need that exists to support and improve the system – students would be exposed to new realities. We hoped to provide the students an opportunity to develop their understandings of the immense challenges faced by children who have grown up in child welfare.     

We also designed the project to meet the strategic need of Tennyson, an agency over a century old, to diversify its audience. Before this collaboration, Tennyson had not explored how to best enter into relationship with Gen Z and Millennials in Colorado. The engagement and investment of future generations of donors and volunteers across Colorado are critical to sustaining the Tennyson mission. We hoped the research and outside perspective of the students would help launch Tennyson into a new generation of strategic messaging, marketing, and fundraising, and would hopefully better inform the agency as a whole about how to partner with the community.    

Students were divided into 4 teams. Across the quarter they engaged in research and discovery, created business case plans to argue for the significance of their campaigns, created campaign messaging, and creative aspects (e.g., photos, art, video). The students generated four campaigns, titled: Tennyson Tidbits, The Resilience Project, #AnythingisPossibleTennyson, Take a Bite for Tennyson. Brief reflections from Lauren as community partner, Beth as professor, and the Communication Studies majors are below:     

Lauren’s Reflections as Community Partner  

I was very impressed with the care and time Beth took in creating curricula for her students. I felt like our collaboration leading up to the quarter was strategic and really productive. The students’ proposals blew me away. I was over the moon about them and they really felt like a breath of fresh air. They were thoughtful and addressed children and families in child welfare as whole people. I had instructed that they write to frame strengths, which they did beautifully. It is clear that they spent time researching not only Tennyson but the child welfare system as a whole and those impacted by it. Their proposals were innovative and really humanized the Center. I am so grateful that the students have allowed us to use their ideas and campaigns on our own. I felt the students were gracious and I ultimately hope that the experience gave them a real insight into the realities of the child welfare sector and those it serves.    

Beth’s Reflections as Professor  

The quarter has just ended. I spent the last several days not just grading but also doing a thematic analysis of the students’ final, reflective, integrative essays. While I plan to continue processing the ways the course impacted the students and myself, I can already identify a central theme of increased student engagement across the essays. Increased engagement stemmed from the course topic and the course design. Student essays discussed child welfare as a real world, emotionally intense topic that they became passionate about across the quarter. As one student wrote, the topic was engaging enough to cut through the malaise of the spring quarter:  

Communication Studies Student Voice  

“Spring Quarter is often the time of year at the University of Denver where students and staff alike check out. It feels like Summer, and we are anxious to get out of the classroom for a while. When I chose my classes for this quarter, I was excited but did not feel passionate about any one course. These classes would help get me to graduation to start a master’s degree that was more tailored to my interests. However, when I began this course, things changed. I found I was very passionate about helping the Denver community, especially at-risk youth in the child welfare system. Through our community partnership with the Tennyson Center for Children, along with class sources and reflections, I learned about the child welfare industry. I began the quarter with little to no knowledge of child welfare but ended it with a deep understanding of what child welfare is, and the strengths and weaknesses of this industry”   

Student writing also attributed increased engagement to the community-engaged course design. The course design provided students a different way to learn. The enrolled students did not come to the course with a wealth of prior experience with community-engaged courses. Many did not realize the course included a community-engaged design when they enrolled, and for those that did, most did not know what the “Service Learning” course designation meant. Despite this, community-engaged courses became a new favorite, as reflected in the student excerpt below:  

Communication Studies Student Voice  

“Going forward in my education, I would love to participate in more courses that are tied to the community. I truly feel as though I find fulfillment and purpose in my work when I know it is contributing to a greater cause. I am simply not just completing a random project, but instead providing help and resources to an organization that is giving back to the community. This is a course where I could identify a tangible difference that I have made or knowledge that I have learned. It challenged me to further my thinking and go outside of the classroom to improve as a student. All in all, I feel a true purpose that works to motivate and inspire me to produce the best possible work I am capable of and to continue to apply and improve upon my knowledge. As a community-engaged learner, I have found the style that works to strengthen myself as a person and a student.”    

Relatedly, the community-engaged design allowed students to realize the power of their voice, leaving students feeling empowered to use their voices to advocate for child welfare and other socially significant causes, as evidenced by the student quote below:  

Communication Studies Student Voice  

“With a combination of both the real-life experience and the assigned readings, it has encouraged me to understand the ways in which I can use my voice to contribute to social change and to speak out about matters that I care about. I will be using the information I had collected on the topic of child welfare services as an example of causes that may not be receiving the attention that is needed, I will be exploring how voice can be influential in being progressive in social justice. Through the participation in this course that focuses on a social justice approach to higher education, I have acquired a desire to better the ways that I use my voice on behalf of causes that I believe to be important.”   


This reflection was completed during the 2020-2021 “Faculty Fellows: Community-Engaged Teaching in COVID Times” program. To learn about this year’s Community of Practice, please visit our website here. The program was a collaborative effort organized by the Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning, the University Writing Program, and the Office of Teaching and Learning and was generously supported by DU Academic Affairs.

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