Past academic mentors discuss the benefits of working with the Community-Academic Scholars Program

11/16/2022 10:32:00 AM Amy Clay-Moore

The Community-Academic Scholars (CAS) Program is now recruiting both researchers and students for its fifth summer session. Each summer, CAS provides professional development, guidance, and a stipend for an undergraduate to support a research project conducted by a University of Illinois researcher in collaboration with a community partner.

While the program benefits for the scholars and community partners may be more obvious, academic mentors also benefit from participating. In addition to the experience of mentoring a passionate undergraduate, Illinois faculty and staff talk how both the scholar and the CAS team support and enhance their research. Many academic mentors participate year after year – 11 of the 15 researchers who participated during Summer 2022 had been involved in past sessions.

Accelerating research

Most academic mentors note how these talented undergraduates have helped to advance their research during the 10-week summer program. Professor Ruby Mendenhall has participated in the Community-Academic Scholars Program for the past two years. Last summer, Prof. Mendenhall worked with an undergraduate scholar and the Chicago-based organization, Girls Like Me, on a project to better understand the various coping mechanisms Black women and girls employ to deal with social stressors like racism.

“This program is amazing because it provides a critical academic resource. The scholars are gifted and able to work well independently. I highly, highly recommend the program. The students have been a tremendous help,” Prof. Mendenhall said.

Ashleigh Olivera, a graduate student in Prof. Manabu Nakamura’s lab, has also been impressed with the Community-Academic Scholars’ contributions to their project to assess how a program that incorporates nutrition, lifestyle, and behavioral education and coaching can address health disparities.

“The Community-Academic Scholars (CAS) Program is an excellent opportunity to work with a highly skilled student. This is my second time receiving a CAS scholar for the summer and both experiences brought meaningful results to our lab research,” Olivera shared.  

Getting matched with talented undergraduates

Most researchers also appreciate having the CAS team help find talented undergraduates who are eager to learn and passionate about the project they are contributing to. To match scholars with projects, the CAS team allows students to rank the projects they most want to support, asking them to explain how their lived experience, previous coursework, and professional skills would enhance their contribution to each project. They then interview the top candidates to find the best match for each project. Academic mentors may choose to be part of the interview process.

Prof. Chung-Yi Chiu, who has worked with two scholars on a research project with Illinois Joining Forces to improve healthcare delivery to rural Veterans, has been especially pleased with the scholars who have worked on her project. “The program committee has great insight into selecting future rising stars!”

Interdisciplinary perspectives

Many academic mentors value the chance to work with students outside of their department because of the diverse perspectives and skillsets these students bring to the research project. For instance, Illinois Extension Professor Margarita Teran-Garcia worked with a Fine and Applied Arts student to develop and assess outreach materials for Abriendo Caminos, a culturally responsive nutritional intervention aimed at improving the health of the Hispanic community.

Last summer, Kinesiology and Community Health Professor Laura Rice had the opportunity to work with Chance Fleming, a senior majoring in social work and minoring in disability studies and political science.  Prof. Rice appreciated Chance’s contributions to the project. “Chance, while being respectful, showed a great deal of confidence while engaging in the project. He also has some wonderful original ideas that he shared with the group.” She also noted how this was a boon to her research. “This is a great program to become engaged with students across campus and get some unique insight into your project.”

Community engagement expertise

For faculty like Education Policy, Organization, & Leadership Professor John Hale, working with the CAS team offered an added benefit – the expertise of the CAS team. “This was a great program to bridge the community-university divide and to learn firsthand best practices in university-community engagements,” Prof. Hale said.

The Community-Academic Scholars team is comprised of research development professionals with experience in fostering community-academic collaboration. Throughout the year, Kelsey Hassevoort, Brandi Barnes, and staff from the Center for Social and Behavioral Science (CSBS) organize events, develop resources, and offer guidance and feedback to Illinois faculty and staff interested in community-engaged research. They often work with academic mentors throughout the year. In fact, two of the 2022 CAS academic mentors worked with the IHSI team to develop successful Call to Action proposals.

Fulfilling our land-grant mission

Perhaps most important, every academic mentor in the CAS program expressed appreciation for the opportunity to mentor a student and make an impact on the community, fulfilling our university’s land grant mission.

Dr. Margarita Teran-Garcia described participation in CAS as a ‘win-win.’ “I have been a mentor for several years and it is always rewarding to see the great experience the scholars get during their summer. It is a great opportunity to bridge academic and community work with engaged partners. It is a win-win opportunity.”

Food Science & Human Nutrition Professor Manabu Nakamura echoed Dr. Teran-Garcia’s sentiments. “The CAS is a great program in building the future of our university by providing opportunity for experiential education and research exposure to students and connecting university researchers to community to solve real problems.”  

Learn more about participating in the Community-Academic Scholars program: