Community-Engaged Learning

Creating Connection: Navigating Relationships in CEL

Relationship-building is a crucial component of Community-Engaged Learning. It frames and impacts the quality of the experience for all involved (student, instructor, and community partner). For the second part of our four-part series with Aspen (pseudonym) following her experience in SOCI 439, we discussed what relationship-building has looked like for her.
As mentioned in the previous story, Aspen’s experience with her community partner has not been smooth sailing, and it’s likely some hiccups in relationship-building may be part of the cause for this. For Aspen’s situation, it seems like having to communicate with her partner entirely online (as per covid restrictions) may have been the main source for the challenges with building the relationship– because so much gets lost in translation through Zoom screens and emails. Aspen said, “I think if I had been there, face-to-face, I would have known that they are giving time to me, and it’s not just another meeting they have to log into.” She concluded that, “I think it could have gone differently if I had at least been able to make one interaction in person.”

Creating Connection

Aspen entered this experience knowing she would only be able to interact with her community partner online, which influenced how she behaved, saying “I took on a role that was a lot more professional and didn’t show my personality.” She explained that showing her personality would have likely benefitted the relationship-building because only having a professional lens in this experience made her feel “like I was just emailing a stranger.” Also, Aspen felt like an outsider and excluded from the organization, as the relationship did not extend beyond the task she was assigned. While it is not always necessary, including students in the organization, even if just a little bit can create a sense of connection to the organization for the student; for example, letting students observe meetings or inviting them to tour the physical office or attend an event. For many students participating in community-engaged learning, they are near-graduates with valuable skills. Therefore, it’s important to include them in a professional setting—as done with any other new hires—which again will influence a more positive collaboration experience.

Build comfort

Aspen also said that casual introductions where you get to know each other can combat feelings of exclusion for students going to work in a new environment. This allows the relationship to build personally and contribute to the collaboration process. Aspen mentioned that if she and the community partner had spent “like 5 minutes getting to know each other a bit…[she] would have been more comfortable. Even more comfortable brainstorming and moving forward with the project because [she] would be able to be more [her]self.” In contrast, Aspen explained how her professor (Dr. Bruce Ravelli) had the students do longer introductions at the start of the class, which helped her feel comfortable with her peers in SOCI 439.


Both community partners and students are responsible for the working relationship, just as instructors are responsible for preparing students and community for the relationship and experience. Even though there were many moments that could have led to frustration, Aspen reflected on herself and her actions rather than playing the blame game. As Aspen said, “It’s hard to have a sustained relationship when it feels one-sided.” Positive relationship-building is easier when each party is self-aware.

Respect yourself

Many students participating in community-engaged learning are near-graduates with valuable skills. Regardless, we all have gifts to offer. Aspen recognizes that she can feel confident in her abilities and noted that if she were to try this process of relationship-building with a community partner again, she would advocate for herself more: “I’m worth your time!” Many students doing CEL grapple with confidence, but Aspen is right to recognize that she has skills and knowledge to offer a community partner. There is a beautiful balance in knowing your worth and humbly sharing it with others.


Aspen reiterated that “there are lots of positive stories in the class—[the other relationships between the students and the community partners] are not all like this.” Her instructor and class have been a source of positive relationship-building during the last eight months. While Aspen’s experience has not been ideal, she and we have learned so much. Her story inspires reflection for all those who participate or plan on participating in a CEL experience. For the third part of this series, we will be discussing reflection with Aspen and how it has manifested through these two semesters.

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