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UW–Madison’s UniverCity Year is finalist for community engagement award

September 21, 2022 By Abigail Becker

The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s UniverCity Year program has been named a regional winner of the 2022 W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Engagement Scholarship Award from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, in recognition of its community engagement initiatives.

UniverCity Year, the hallmark program of UniverCity Alliance, connects communities across Wisconsin with resources, faculty and students from UW­–Madison to tackle community-identified challenges.

“UniverCity Year embodies the Wisconsin Idea, the premise that the university should improve communities and lives across the state of Wisconsin and beyond,” said UW–Madison Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin. “This program is both a genuine and powerful partnership between the university and the participating communities, and an exceptional teaching and learning experience for our faculty and students.”

As a regional award winner, UW–Madison will compete for the national C. Peter Magrath Community Engagement Scholarship Award, which will be announced in November. Other finalists for the award are the University of Georgia, the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Vermont.

The C. Peter Magrath Community Engagement Scholarship Award includes a sculpture and $20,000 prize. The three other regional winners will each receive a $5,000 prize to further their work.

Since 2007, APLU and the Engagement Scholarship Consortium, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, have partnered to honor the engagement scholarship and partnerships of four-year public universities.

“Community engagement is a critical part of public universities’ mission and we’re pleased to highlight the work of institutions that are engaging communities in need,” said APLU President Mark Becker.

UniverCity Year’s award submission used Green County as a case study to illustrate how UniverCity Year works and what can be possible for communities through this partnership. Green County’s partnership with UniverCity Year took place from 2017-20.


UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter speaks in front of Green County residents at a wrap up event for the UniverCity Year-Green County partnership. Patrick Bodell / Synqronus Communication

“We’ve been so lucky to work with Green County using this model of engagement,” says UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter. “By listening to what would be most helpful to Green County, we’ve been able to tackle projects that have resulted in some tangible impacts in a variety of areas — from public health to economic development to environmental sustainability.”

This model of engagement is replicable in other communities through the Educational Partnerships for Innovations in Communities – Network, which Luter said is an “added bonus.”

Since its inception, UniverCity Year has partnered with 20 communities. These include cities, towns, villages, counties, and community organizations of all sizes from villages with 66 residents to counties with over 1 million residents.

“New engaged scholarship and teaching opportunities are out there to be discovered in rural and urban communities, and this model helps unearth them in a way that’s respectful of our community partners and does not add a lot of new bureaucracy,” Luter said.

Green County’s partnership, which was championed by the Green County Development Corporation, addressed 50 projects across seven areas: communications and operations; community and economic development; health; housing; parks; sustainability; and transportation. Teams of UW–Madison students and faculty worked with community members on projects including:

  • Developing an opioid use data dashboard.
  • Implementing a mental health navigator program to improve connections to mental health resources.
  • Cutting the Juda School District’s energy costs by 40% after receiving energy efficiency recommendations.

GCDC Executive Director Olivia Otte said UniverCity Year “provided a great way to get some very important projects ‘unstuck’ and prompted forward momentum.”

A garden in the center of the City of Brodhead, in Green County.

“Green County communities are always looking for ways to improve, but change is hard. Staff and elected officials in our communities often lack time, knowledge or political space to make the changes our local residents demand,” Otte said. “UniverCity Year students have a tremendous amount of creativity and desire to make change.”

The students helped Green County look at old problems in new ways, she said. “We are so appreciative of their efforts, and we were happy to provide some real-world experiences, with all the messiness that bureaucracy brings, to their education.”

The UniverCity Year program is a three-year partnership, starting with the community identifying challenges they want to work on and priorities to move forward, followed by university-based experts designing research-to-practice approaches for addressing community needs. Because problems are community-identified, projects span a wide array of challenges including transportation, housing, health, agriculture, childcare, economic development and the arts.

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