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What we can learn —  during the pandemic and beyond — from community partners regarding their experiences working with UNC-Chapel Hill students

“I find that some…college students have trouble managing their time… Also taking a commitment seriously.”
– 2020 community partner focus group participant


What do community partners think of their experiences working with Carolina students as volunteers and part-time employees? This question drove the Carolina Center for Public Service to conduct a survey of over 200 community partners in the Chapel Hill area and throughout North Carolina.

Our goals: This report shares some key findings that are most applicable to Carolina students and the faculty and staff working to support those students. We hope this report provides lessons on how past community partner experiences might influence the way you approach your current and future community engagement work.

Our commitment: We at CCPS will incorporate insights gained through this study into student trainings and orientations to help improve and strengthen the experiences of our community partners.

APPLES Students Meet NC AIDS Representatives in the Pit

What we learned

Most of the study’s 229 participants agreed that Carolina students make significant, satisfactory contributions. At the same time, participants provided helpful feedback on areas for improvement. Some key things that the survey respondents said would improve their experiences working with Carolina students:

  • Better communication
  • Better expectation-setting
  • Better student time management
  • More consistent student time commitments
  • More support from UNC faculty and staff

Two follow-up focus group discussions revealed greater detail than the survey. Regarding the key challenges of working with UNC students, focus groups participants most often discussed:

  • Distance from campus and associated travel costs
  • Delays due to background checks or other tests
  • Time management or scheduling
  • Motivation (students just doing things for credit without genuine interest in the work)
  • The academic calendar
  • Professionalism issues (such as dress codes and cell phone use)
  • Lack of expertise
  • Lack of commitment to engagement
  • Over-commitment in other aspects of life
  • Lack of communication from faculty and staff
  • Need to create projects for students

The focus group conversations focused more on benefits to the students than benefits to the organizations, including:

  • Substantive relationships developed
  • Career connections for students
  • Student development and learning outcomes

APPLES Student reads elementary students a story

Insights for students

The organizations and type of work represented in this study were wide-ranging, and there is no direct piece of advice that fits every situation. However, listening to the more critical voices and negative experiences that some partners have had is an important part of preparing for community engagement experiences.

If you’re a student preparing to volunteer, intern, serve through a service-learning course or work as a student employee, consider the following questions paired with quotes from our partners:


What exactly am I committing to do, and how clear is my level of commitment to my community partner?

“I find that some…college students have trouble managing their time… Also taking a commitment seriously.”

“Our biggest disappointment is when a student commits to coach a team for a season and then backs away.”

“Students can have unrealistic expectations for what employment looks like. We have faced challenges of frustration that they cannot work off site, punctuality, calling in sick and generally not reading and referencing our employee policies and protocols.”


What are my motivations for doing this? Are they compatible with my community partner’s goals?

“It has been a mix of the real contributors and those seeking a resume boost without putting in a full effort.”

“Students fulfilling class requirements do the bare minimum to get credit for their time.”

“It’s super obvious when they are just trying to get a resume builder. If your heart isn’t in it, it shows.”

Are there standards of professionalism — such as dress codes, phone use, communication — that I need to consider?

“[Our experiences would be better if] the students were prepped to act in the most professional manner possible i.e.: notify if you’re late or not coming, understand the client before you arrive, appropriate clothing (frequently an issue), etc.”

“[Many students need a] general ‘how to be responsible’ [training] … If you are committing to this, people are going to expect you to be on time and following the dress code, following the procedures.”

“People who we are working with, half of them don’t even know what a cell phone is, and they find it extremely rude if people keep looking at their cell phone.”


Are there ways to extend my engagement beyond a single semester?

“There’s a lot to learn about any agency, and [students] are only there for a limited time.”

“We do a lot, and it takes a little bit to figure out what we’re doing and the best way to help that … So I feel like we’re just getting the interns up to speed, and then it’s time for the semester to end.”

“Most of the ones that have come through APPLES have only come for one semester, which makes it tougher to do long-term relationship things.”

APPLES Community Engaged Scholars Alba and Nettie smile with young students

Insights for faculty/staff

If you’re a faculty or staff member who supports students going into the field through a specific program or academic service-learning course, you might consider the following questions paired with quotes from our partners:

Am I communicating and setting expectations adequately for this partnership to succeed?

“I don’t think I’ve had any correspondence whatsoever from faculty or staff; it’s always been student-led.”

“It would be really helpful to have that contact [with the course instructor] sooner rather than later, so that it’s possible for me to remind the instructor, ‘Here are the requirements,’ … I’m not clear on if the students actually see everything that I put on the application for the classes.”

“When I say that I need applications by a certain date or I need everyone to contact me by a certain date or…I give very specific instructions to the students and the instructor at the beginning of the semester, I need them to really follow that. It’s difficult when…weeks later I get students saying, ‘Please, please, let me in’… I really need the instructors to get on the ball at the very beginning of the semester.”

Is this partnership benefiting the community partner and contributing to their mission?

“For us, there’s the least amount of burden when the benefits to us match the benefits for the students. Sometimes…they really want to do a project that is not as beneficial to us or will require a lot of extra time or resources. At that point I feel like I’m just making up a project just for students to get credit.”

“If it ever gets to the point where we’re just trying to make up projects, that’s when it would be more of a burden…”


Am I providing adequate structure to ensure the quality of students’ work?

“I think something that might be helpful is, if it’s a semester-long project with the community partner, doing a mid-semester check in, just seeing how everything’s going.”

“We would love to have time to reflect with them.”

Service Learning Course Students Smile with Habitat for Humanity Community Partners at a Buildsite

In the context of COVID-19

Both focus groups occurred during early stages of our state’s shelter-in-place orders due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The discussions closed with a brief, unplanned discussion of the emerging situation related to COVID-19. The participants experienced and anticipated a wide variety of changes due to COVID-19 — from minimal expected impact to a complete shutdown of activity. Comments on this topic included:

“Our doors are closed to everyone besides essential staff.”

“All of our stuff is either in-person or not at all.”

“We started to think about things that they could do if they couldn’t come back … We’re going to explore some talking to residents by Skype and just different things that I wouldn’t have thought of before … We’re kind of working with what we’ve got and trying to come up with new ways to communicate.”

“Since we have a communications intern, we’ve been able to do a lot of work remotely or online. I would think just really good, constant communication between the organizations and UNC would be really helpful for us.”

“We have no other volunteer activities at this point.”


These quotes illustrate how challenging our current situation is not only for our University but also for the community partners with whom we work. These comments underscore the importance of:

  • Communication
  • Expectation-setting
  • Commitment

APPLES Alternative Break Students at Furniture Site

To Learn More…

For more information about this project or ideas about how to more fully include partner voices and experiences as part of preparing for student experiences working with community organizations, contact Ryan Nilsen at Study team members Ryan Nilsen and Susan Worley prepared and presented a “Learning from Community Partner Experiences Working with Students” webinar at NC Campus Compact Community Engagement Administrators Conference on June 9, 2020.


Thanks to the study team members, who together guided the design and implementation of this project: CCPS Advisory Board members April Warren (Student U), Susan Worley (Volunteers for Youth), Melvin Jackson (PRIME Collective, LLC) and CCPS staff members Ryan Nilsen, Kate Palmer, Becca Bender, Margaret Barrett and Lynn Blanchard.

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