Introducing the Engaged Scholarship Certificate

Brown University is offering a new undergraduate certificate for students interested in integrating academic study with community-based learning, research, and action
April 14, 2022

The Engaged Scholarship Certificate

In fall 2021, Brown University began offering a new academic program to undergraduate students: the Engaged Scholarship Certificate (ESC). Sponsored by the Department of Sociology and the Swearer Center, the ESC provides an avenue for undergraduate students to investigate public, civic, and/or social justice issues of their choosing through academic study combined with community-based learning, research, and action. 

The ESC joins two existing undergraduate certificate programs in Data Fluency and Entrepreneurship. These Undergraduate Certificate Programs are pathways approved by the College Curriculum Council (CCC) that contribute to a student’s academic and personal development through curricular, co-curricular, and experiential learning, deepening their understanding of an area of interest and ultimately advancing the university’s mission to “serve the community, the nation, and the educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.” 

Michael Kennedy, Professor of Sociology, has been working with the Swearer Center for several years, inspired to do so because of the intrinsic value and public consequence of the center's work connecting Brown to its proximate, and occasionally distant, publics. Professor Kennedy writes, "Conventional academic research and teaching can work at a distance from organizations in communities, but the great appeal of engaged scholarship rests in its partnerships. Not only do its practitioners mobilize knowledge for the public good but in the process develop relationships that enhance the capacities of organizations and institutions to meet public needs and extend social justice. This certificate, with the terrific resources of the Swearer Center at hand for students and faculty alike, moves a more collectively consequential kind of learning." 

“Brown’s commitment to liberal arts education that’s both intellectually rigorous and socially conscious led to the development of this new academic pathway,” notes Mary Jo Callan, Executive Director of the Swearer Center for Public Service. “The Swearer Center is excited to be collaborating on this certificate, which supports students diving deep into an issue of their choosing. We encourage students to have a community-based mentor as well as a faculty advisor, so they learn from and with community members working on the issue–and ideally also contribute in meaningful ways to that work.“ 


Building on the Engaged Scholars Program

The Engaged Scholarship Certificate builds on the strengths and core elements of the Engaged Scholars Program (ESP), a program that has allowed students in 16 affiliated concentrations—including independent concentrations—to connect community-based experiential learning with courses in or complementing their concentration. Originally launched in 2015, ESP has graduated almost 100 participants, and more than 20 will complete the program this May. Current ESP students will be supported through their graduation, but new ESP applications are not being accepted since the certificate is accessible to students in any concentration. 

Alexa Ara ‘22, an ESP student in Education Studies (as well as a Portuguese and Brazilian Studies concentrator and a peer advisor in the Swearer Center), appreciates how the program fosters “deep, critical reflection, which has not only shaped my last two years but also my thinking about what I want to do post-graduation.” Her extensive engagement in Providence contributed to her receiving full-time offers from two nonprofit organizations in the area; now she faces the good problem of deciding among those opportunities and several graduate school programs. 


Declaring the Engaged Scholarship Certificate

Aaron Castillo ‘23, the first student to officially declare ESC, developed an Independent Concentration in Food and Identity and “wants to do research in the most equitable way possible.” He chose to pursue ESC because it provides “a dedicated space to explore what engaged scholarship means and how I can practice these values in my academic and personal lives.” Equitable work with communities requires “looking at your own biases and preconceived notions…[and] your positionality, privilege, and power.” 

Each ESC student will take the foundational seminar, SOC 0310: Theory and Practice of Engaged Scholarship, define a specific issue as their certificate focus, and propose a set of three experiences—a three-course interdisciplinary elective sequence, a community-based practicum, and a capstone—related to that issue. Students can only submit a declaration in ASK during their fifth or sixth semester but are encouraged to begin developing their plans and taking relevant courses earlier, including SOC 0310. The seminar and certificate have attracted interest from students in a variety of concentrations, including American Studies, Anthropology, Applied Mathematics, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, Engineering, Environmental Studies, Ethnic Studies, Health and Human Biology, History, International and Public Affairs, Neuroscience, Sociology and Urban Studies.


Connecting to a Broader Community of Engaged Scholars

Whether or not students intend to pursue ESC, they are welcome to enroll in SOC 0310 or connect with this interdisciplinary community. The Swearer Center is committed to supporting experiences like that of Morgan De Lancy ‘22, a History concentrator in ESP who worked with the Refugee Dream Center to develop a system of volunteer training. In her capstone, Morgan wrote:

It felt important to me to spend my time investigating questions that served a purpose greater than my own curiosity, both in order to produce work that would be accessible and of use to others…and because I knew my own learning is always greatest when I collaborate with and benefit from the wisdom of others…I am proud that the presentation, which I co-created with knowledge from coworkers and community members at the Dream Center, now serves as [a] resource for future volunteers hoping to support the work of the Refugee Dream Center, as well as for staff to more easily prepare volunteers for engagement…It feels fitting that the most important contribution I was able to make at RDC was not in direct service to the refugee community, (as the center's talented caseworkers, who themselves are a part of this community, have this covered) but was to work with other well-meaning volunteers to educate them on the white savior complex, help them reflect on the way that they interact with clients, and ultimately reduce the harm being done by those hoping to help…Through both my studies in the Engaged Scholarship program and through praxis—the act of getting out and putting the theories I’d studied to use—I learned that mindful, ethical, and most importantly, mutually beneficial work with community partners is indeed possible.

Julie Plaut, Director of Engaged Scholarship at the Swearer Center, appreciates “the many faculty who have developed engaged courses and programs over the years with community partners, students, and staff. They’ve not only shaped the certificate but also contributed to a broader academic culture that analyzes systems and power dynamics, recognizes multiple sources of knowledge, and fosters learning and changemaking beyond the classroom.” 

Learn more about the Engaged Scholarship Certificate. Any interested student is also welcome to email [email protected] to ask questions or to arrange a meeting with Swearer Center engaged scholarship staff or peer advisors. Examples of past engaged scholars’ capstones can be found on the Brown Digital Repository.