We recently attended the Community Preservation Corporation's Hudson Valley Main Street Summit, which featured several great presentations on revitalization efforts in Poughkeepsie, NY and elsewhere that utilize successful university partnerships. In Poughkeepsie, a local nonprofit called Hudson River Housing has leveraged the resources of nearby Vassar College to increase their capacity for commercial district revitalization while also providing an enriching educational experience for Vassar students. Most recently, a geography class at Vassar spent the entire semester working with Hudson River Housing on their Middle Main corridor, conducting a detailed property inventory and producing a library of GIS maps that will aid Hudson River Housing in future projects. This work allowed the Vassar students to view and interact with their surrounding community in a new way, practice their Spanish language skills, and gain experience working with a real-life client. This direct experience cannot be synthesized in the classroom and is immensely beneficial to everyone involved.
In addition to class projects such as this one, Vassar also runs a Field Work program that provides students with academic credit and a stipend to intern with community organizations and government agencies. As many as 500 Vassar students participate in this program in some years, many of them in the city of Poughkeepsie. Vassar also runs a free shuttle through Poughkeepsie that stops at fieldwork sites such as Poughkeepsie Middle School and the Family Partnership Center as well as downtown. According to Jeff Kosmacher, Vassar's Director of Media Relations & Public Affairs, strong community partners are the true foundations of these projects. It just may not be obvious to community organizations, such as commercial district managers, how to find the right person or department at a college to connect with. As an example, Mr. Kosmacher has compiled a list of some of the varied departments at Vassar that participate in community partnerships:
Africana Studies, Biology, Education, Geography, Hispanic Studies, Mathematics, Political Science, Sociology, the Vassar Student Association, Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Office of Health Education, and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center (campus museum).
If you are a commercial district manager with a nearby college or university, spend some time reaching out to different departments until you find a good fit. Tailor your efforts to match your corridor: those with ethnic restaurants, for example, are great for trips by language and cultural studies classes. Be sure to follow the academic calendar and be respectful of student timelines if you agree to do a project--it can be very difficult for students to continue a project after the semester ends. Strong community partners have a lot to offer nearby universities, and with a little effort and the right message, you can form long lasting connections that increase your capacity.