Austin College charts a course to strengthen its impact
through a new center for community and regional development
Austin College has been a hub of activity in North Texas since the institution moved from Huntsville to Sherman in 1876. In the 138 years since, many connections have been built in the local community, but none more ambitious than the new Center for Community and Regional Development (CCRD) that will launch in Fall Term 2014.
The concept for community service was not new, but it evolved to a new level—during Austin College’s recent strategic planning process—from two very simple, but interrelated, questions:
(1) How does the community become an asset to the College and its students?
iiiiiThat is, how do the College and the community build relationships that provide students with exceptional learning opportunities?
(2) How can a liberal arts college and its students be an asset to the community?
iiiiiThat is, how do the College and the community build relationships that help make this a better place to live and work?
The City of Sherman’s master plan has plenty of good ideas for park development, but funds for new projects are limited. The wish list included a mountain bike trail—a labor-intensive endeavor that seemed unlikely to become reality. A fortuitous conversation on the sidelines of a soccer field changed that.
Soccer dads Don Rodgers, director of the Austin College Center for Community and Regional Development, and Jason Griffin, local bike enthusiast, talked one Saturday morning about the possibility of a volunteer-built bike trail. Sherman Mayor Cary Wacker, also an Austin College staff member and a cyclist, is a champion for volunteer-driven projects to improve the community. It wasn’t long before the mayor and city staff met with Rodgers and Griffin to map the strategy for building a trail network through undeveloped forest land connecting three city parks.
Rodgers organized Austin College students to help with trail workdays beginning in fall 2013. Led by Griffin and a design team from the Dallas off-Road Bike Association, more than 40 Austin College students volunteered over the next few months to carve a single-track trail through the woods and over streams. In March 2014, the first section of the new Binkley Park Bike Trail was dedicated for the community’s use. “Public-private partnership is the perfect way to accomplish goals we have for our communities,” said Wacker. “The city had underutilized land, and Austin College’s contribution of manpower and materials maximized that asset for our citizens.”
Rodgers added, “We want our work through the center to change the community for the better. This project has tangible, lasting benefits for not only the city, but also visitors to the region. The trail adds value to the park and ultimately will create economic benefit as it brings visitors to the region to enjoy a popular outdoor activity.”
The CCRD will expand and deepen engagement of Austin College students, faculty, and staff in improving the quality of life in the Texoma region. Projects can be aligned with existing agencies, local governments, businesses, and residents to assist in planning and implementing a variety of community development projects.
Don Rodgers, associate professor of political science, will head the new center; Rodgers has been coordinating community-focused activities for the past few years, and said the new structure as a formal program will provide a stronger platform from which to engage the community.
“We are guided by a fundamental belief in the interdependence of a college and its community,” said Austin College President Marjorie Hass. “Immersion in civic life is critical for the intellectual development of Austin College students just as the College’s success contributes to the economic and cultural capital of our surrounding communities. We are excited to take this next step toward collaboration.”
The College’s new strategic plan, Adding Value to a Changing World: The Plan for Austin College 2015-2020, is available online.ii
Brought together under the banner of Austin College’s Center for Community and Regional Development, a suite of activities is already changing the face of North Texas. These activities are helping agencies, local governments, businesses, and citizens create solutions:
- Regional Bike (Active Transportation) Plan
- Downtown Art Projects for Sherman and Denison
- Educational Outreach to Local Schools
- Marketing Plan to Promote Texoma Tourism/ecotourism
- Department of Public Health Lake Water and West Nile Studies
- Social Entrepreneurship for Poverty Alleviation (SEPA) Program
- Home Hospice Program
- Library Programs
- Austin College/Southeastern Oklahoma State University Project on Native American Studies
- GIS Research Projects
- Chamber of Commerce/Leadership Sherman Programming
A primary function of the center will be to collect data relevant to regional economic, social, and educational initiatives. The formation will be made available to regional organizations; the center also will organize meetings, seminars, and symposia focused on data collection and analysis.
Those efforts have started quickly: in June, the College hosted the region’s first mental health conference, sponsored by the Texoma Health Foundation and celebrating the launch of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute for Texas.
A New Resource
In May, Austin College was approved as a new partner in The Foundation Center’s Funding Information Network. Dedicated computers in Abell Library will offer full access to the national database of grant-making organizations—another resource for the region Austin College calls “home.”