Connecting Campus + Community

Written by Robin Lesh

March 26, 2024

Collage for Sundborg Center anniversary

Sundborg Center for Community Engagement marks 20-year milestone with a record of building community relationships and bolstering learning opportunities for students.

Since its inception in 2004, the Sundborg Center for Community Engagement (CCE) has facilitated transformative learning experiences for thousands of Seattle University students and fostered more than100 partnerships between campus and community. Through the founding vision of then-President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., dedicated staff, committed campus and community partners and generous donors, CCE has sustained programs and partnerships throughout Central Seattle during a period of rapid change for both the university and the city.

"As we approach our 20th anniversary, we celebrate our collective successes and prepare for the work yet to come,” says CCE Executive Director Kent Koth. “We will continue to focus on what we do best—focus on the community that has made CCE what it is today."

Through CCE, Seattle University and its neighbors have worked to address significant issues such as educational inequity, gentrification and housing instability. Steeped in Jesuit and Catholic values of public service, CCE’s beginning included the creation of a student leadership program and the centralization of Community Engaged Learning (CEL) courses. During the past 20 years, the center has grown into a bustling, dynamic and thriving launchpad, connecting those both on campus and in surrounding neighborhoods through long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships.

"Our families, our children, our businesses didn’t have access to the knowledge, innovation, energy of youth, resources, creativity and new development that SU represented until the Sundborg Center for Community Engagement was created," says Evelyn Allen, director of the Black Community Impact Alliance (BCIA).

In 2011, CCE launched the Seattle University Youth Initiative (SUYI), designed to unite the university and the wider Seattle community to support the development of successful youth, thriving communities and an engaged campus. SUYI’s place-based focus encompasses a 100-square block area immediately adjacent to campus. Since its inception, the Youth Initiative has become the largest community engagement effort in university history, connecting with hundreds of local children and youth, mobilizing thousands of SU students to engage and leveraging millions of dollars in public and private support for neighborhood initiatives.

The effort to connect SU students to the community has had a big impact for all involved. Isaiah Payne, ’23, mentored young scholars at Washington Middle School and was named an Eddie O’Brien Student-Athlete of the Year in 2023. He credits CCE and SUYI mentoring programs with providing a bridge for him to create community.

"I wanted to be … someone special that other people could look up to,” says Payne. “My journey was about making sure that I impacted other people’s lives for the better."

Community partnerships are vital to the success and growth of CCE. Partnerships like that with Hilltop House, which has SU students connecting with the community through courses and projects each quarter.

"Community is not a thing but rather a feeling or sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves," says Karen Carlos, community engagement director at Hilltop House. "When we first started partnering with Seattle University, I felt that Hilltop [House] was standing alone on First Hill. I was grateful to learn about the program at SU. At first it was about inviting students in to help our residents. I then became aware of the give-back I was starting to witness. It was a win-win situation. Students were helping residents with tasks and activities and residents were helping students learn about connections, interactions and the importance of service."

Community Engaged Learning provides opportunities for students to work with and learn from the community, says Provost Fellow Rebecca McNamara, PhD, an assistant clinical professor at the Matteo Ricci Institute.

"It is a high-impact teaching practice that has been shown to increase students’ academic content learning, interpersonal skills such as communication and teamwork and their awareness of social issues and their root causes," McNamara says.

"Community Engaged Learning enlivens the Jesuit mission of Seattle University. Through experience and reflection, students are moved to act on causes and issues that are important to them and to our society."

More than just the university and local community are taking notice of the work and initiatives of the center. In 2012, the Obama administration awarded SU with the President’s Higher Education Community Service Award, the top award given by the federal government to an institution of higher education committed to volunteerism, service and civic engagement.

The recognition highlighted a range of efforts that speak to service including health care support from the College of Nursing and legal aid from the School of Law. CCE is a national leader among other higher education institutions, regularly recognized for its exemplary focus on community partnerships through place-based community engagement. In 2017, CCE led the effort to create the nationwide Place-Based Justice Network (PBJN), which continues today through the University of San Diego. PBJN is a learning community committed to transforming higher education and communities by deconstructing systems of oppression through place-based community engagement.

"For two decades, the Sundborg Center has been at the forefront of bridging town and gown," says Chris Nayve, associate vice president for community engagement and anchor initiatives at the University of San Diego. "The team at CCE has been important thought leaders shaping the field of place-based community engagement. What we appreciate so much is the generosity of spirit and collegiality. They are considered leaders in convening and sharing wisdom with colleagues from across the country on how to intentionally co-create and integrate community voice and wisdom."

Looking to the future, CCE’s 2030 Strategic Directions plan is well underway. Strategies focus on strengthening and enhancing the Youth Initiative, fostering leadership through transformational learning experiences and reimagining systems by pursuing equity through innovation and iteration. This includes a major expansion of Community Engaged Learning courses and a new commitment for SUYI youth to attend Seattle University.

"I admire how the center, with its mission, organically develops to respond over these 20 years to what is most needed and possible at different times and in changing contexts," says Father Sundborg. "It is always growing and changing."