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Graduate Community of Practice: A Transformative and Unifying Experience

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By: Sarah Buckingham

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puzzle pieces

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

Participating in the University of Denver's Graduate Community of Practice was a profoundly enriching experience. The cohort brought together graduate students from diverse disciplines, each committed to incorporating community-engaged methods into their scholarly work. This shared commitment laid the foundation for an environment rich in communal reflection, collective problem-solving, and knowledge-sharing. 

Our meetings, held twice each quarter, were a blend of structured dialogue and spontaneous exchange, facilitated by the unique format of participant-led sessions. I particularly enjoyed these experiences as someone who came from an English background in undergrad into a Data Science graduate program where discussion is infrequent in class. Leading a discussion on the implications of funding for community-engaged projects, and how to secure such funding, was a particularly enlightening experience for me. This session underscored the distinct challenges that accompany community-engaged research, which requires securing resources while ensuring that partnerships remain reciprocal and mutually beneficial. 

One of the most significant insights I gained from our cohort was the realization that community-engaged research is fundamentally about relationships. As one of our previous participants aptly put it, “Indeed, what I most appreciated from our time together this year was the opportunity to hear from other people’s experiences and to hold space to talk about questions and issues related to community-engaged scholarship… the most important takeaway I had was the importance of relationships in community-engaged research.” This sentiment resonated deeply with me, as I observed firsthand the power of building strong, trust-based partnerships with community entities. Our discussions often revolved around the ethical dimensions of community engagement, emphasizing that these projects are not just about applying academic expertise to community problems in a one-way fashion. Instead, they require a collaborative approach where risks, benefits, and responsibilities are shared. This reciprocity ensures that the outcomes are not only academically robust but also practically valuable for the communities involved. 

Another aspect of my experience that was particularly valuable was the way in which the diverse disciplinary backgrounds of cohort members enriched our conversations. Whether we were discussing the first-hand challenges of our different projects and research interests or the intricacies of working with different groups such as non-profits vs. government bodies vs. private sector groups, the breadth of perspectives helped us to ask hard questions and explore important issues from multiple angles. This diversity also highlighted the various ways community-engaged methods can be applied, across many different fields and in tandem with a myriad of other research methodologies. 

Though all very different, the members of our cohort still found substantial common ground and formed a sense of unity through our many meetings together. The sense of community within the cohort was further strengthened by our shared meals. These dinners were more than just a break for food; they were an opportunity to connect on a personal level, share experiences, and build the relationships that are so crucial to our work. Breaking bread together fostered a sense of camaraderie and mutual support, making our collaborative efforts even more meaningful. 

In conclusion, my time as a member of the Graduate Community of Practice was transformative. It provided a space to delve deeply into the principles and practices of community-engaged scholarship, learn from the experiences of others, and reflect on the importance of building genuine, reciprocal relationships. This experience has profoundly shaped my approach to research and community engagement, underscoring that at the heart of meaningful community-engaged work are the relationships we cultivate and nurture.