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Community Engaged Learning

What is Community Engaged Learning at TCNJ?

Community Engaged Learning is a signature program of The College of New Jersey chosen by the Strategic Planning task force on Excellence and Signature Programs.  As a signature program, it contributes in a positive way to learning beyond the formal classroom experience.

Community Engaged Learning (CEL) is a teaching strategy that strives to cultivate the common ground that exists between the learning objectives of a course and the unmet needs of the community.  These class-based projects or experiences that are not only educational for the students but also help improve the quality of life for others in our region.

How is Community Engaged Learning Driven by the Mission of the College?

All of the College’s CEL activities and programs are directly tied to TCNJ’s official mission. It reminds us that an excellent education often calls for us to explore and examine the world beyond the campus; where we can more often participate in discussions and engage in experiences that are truly transformative. These experiences are even more profound and impactful when we have opportunities to learn while we work with others to make a positive difference in our communities, applying our knowledge and skills to some of society’s most pressing problems as well as challenges.

How is CEL connected to the Liberal Learning Program?

TCNJ also believes that educated and enlightened individuals must participate in a series of experiences that promote their scholarly growth, broaden their knowledge of all sectors of human inquiry, and emphasizes civic responsibility; these are the three pillars of general education. As part of their Liberal Learning education, TCNJ students “should understand how to accept responsibility for active and engaged citizenship in a complex and diverse society.” Getting involved is embedded throughout the curriculum.

How is CEL Developmental for Students?

The CEL program is divided into two levels, First Year CEL and Advanced CEL, enabling students to progress along a continuum from awareness, to understanding, to application. To start, all First Year students are required in to participate in a meaningful service experience during their first year on campus. The goal is that all will return and participate in more advanced class-based projects during their final three undergraduate years. For more information on the link between learning and community engagement, see the article by Ariane Hoy of the Bonner Foundation “High-Impact Learning and High-Impact Community Engagement” in the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Democracy & Diversity journal.

How does CEL benefit the community?

TCNJ via their Community Engagement and Bonner Community Scholars provide capacity building to local community organizations via direct service, research, planning, and resource development.  The goal is to identify and address a range of needs and interests of the Institute’s partners by tapping into the service and community engaged learning resources on campus.


First Year Community Engaged Learning

First Year Community Engaged Learning (CEL) is a graduation requirement that brings the College’s values to life, and introduces students to the culture of the campus. All First Year students are required to spend a minimum of eight hours addressing one of the unmet needs of the local or regional community. The Bonner Institute for Civic and Community Engagement organizes the CEL program at the College and mobilizes all First Year students to complete the graduation requirement.

If you have any other questions, please contact the Bonner Institute at, or (609)771-2548.


How do I enroll in the First Year Community Engaged Learning?

All First Year students, regardless of their track, are enrolled in a non-credit course (IDS 103/First Year Community Engaged Learning) that appears on their transcripts. They receive a passing grade from the Bonner Institute for completing all of the requirements, which includes filling out pre- and post-surveys.

To manage student participation, all First Year students are also entered into their own individual Canvas community; one for each FSP CEL project or co-curricular CEL Day. This allows Bonner Institute staff and student leaders to communicate directly with the students and faculty and post important items, such as assessment tools.

The Curricular Track: FSP CEL

Approximately 40 faculty members work with Bonner Institute staff and Scholars to integrate a CEL experience or project into their class. These are tied to a specific learning objective of the course. Through this experiential learning practice, students apply the information they learn in class directly to their service in the community and vice versa. This model, also known as service learning, has been recognized as a best-practice for civic learning and democratic action, as well as educational practices in general. Class-based project summaries can be found on our Class Projects page. For information on upcoming FSP courses that will include a CEL component, visit the FSP Courses page.

The Co-Curricular Track: CEL

During Welcome Week, all students who are not in an FSP course with a CEL component participate in Bonner-led civic engagement floor meetings. With their residence mates, students choose an issue that peaks their interest, such as hunger, education, homelessness, the environment, or developmental disabilities. The students select a day in the course of the academic year, during which they learn, serve, and reflect with Bonner Scholars at a partner site in the community.

How do Students Benefit from CEL Experiences?

Data from the Pre and Post surveys provide some evidence that they feel that students are engaged in meaningful service.  89% of students felt they made a positive contribution to the organization and/or individuals they served.

First Year Students’ Reflections

First Year students are asked to evaluate their CEL experiences, whether a co-curricular day or class-based project. The following is a sample of feedback that the Bonner Institute has been proud to receive. For more information on the positive impact CEL Days has on students, visit our Student Impact page.

“I liked how I finally learned how to paint and the specific techniques. I also realized how lucky I am to have a nice home and I appreciate everything I have a lot more now after seeing how underprivileged people are.”

“I feel like this is an excellent way to engage in our community. Trenton is a needy community and this interaction with the Rescue Mission is a great way to aid and help out with the reality of the city.”

“I had a great time. I really enjoyed interacting with the kids and I will definitely look into further volunteering opportunities.”

“It’s amazing how much fun the kids had. Keep up the good work, Bonner! This obviously does make a difference in these kids’ lives.”

“I felt like I was able to make a difference in just a few hours.”

Logistical Information for FSP Faculty Members

The Requirement:   The First Year Community Engaged Learning requirement calls for a minimum of an 8 hour experience, during which time the students address an unmet local need; and that their efforts are also linked to the learning objectives of the course. The Bonner Institute will work with Faculty to find the right balance between the learning and community impact objectives of the CEL experience—as well as what is logistically feasible.

CEL Advisors:  To provide Faculty members with some support, each professor is assigned a Community Engaged Learning (CEL) Advisor.  This is a member of the Bonner Institute staff who has been trained to help professors develop and manage CEL projects.   The Advisor’s first step will be to speak with you and learn about your FSP class. He or she will then start the process of looking for the right community partner and developing some project ideas for to consider.

Professor Participation:  We encourage active role in the development and execution of the project.  There is often a direct connection between student outcomes and the level of a professor’s participation.

Best Practices:  CEL Advisors will work with you to create a class-based project or experience that is also based on the “best practices” in our field. There are four categories:

1)  Hours—CEL experiences have a more profound impact when the participants complete 10-40 hours of “service”. 8-10 may be the best we can do—but we are open to striving for a higher number;

2)  Reflection—for similar reasons, students need to hear their own voice (via journals, class discussions, short papers etc…) and wrestle with the “what, so what, and what next” as it relates to their experience;

3)  Graded assignments—in order for students to reap the full rewards of the CEL experience it should be linked to assignments that count toward their final grade. In our view, CEL is simply another tool to help students understand the content of your course and it is not an “add on” activity;

4)  Democracy—in part, the College requires CEL because we want our students to graduate with a better understanding of what it means to be a citizen in a democratic community. As a result, we are hoping that all classes will integrate at least one reading and one discussion that advances this important goal.

Schedule and Syllabus:  In most cases, the CEL section of a professor’s syllabus is a work-in-progress during the late spring and early summer months. As the project begins to take shape, professors begin to insert what assignments (e.g. papers) or other activities (blog conversations, journal) can be linked to the CEL experience and our rationale for bringing students into the community to address some unmet need as part of an FSP course. The CEL Advisor will provide as much support as possible; which may include connecting with another professor who has done this type of work before or passing on helpful links/resources.

Communication & Contact Information:  CEL Advisors, along with Bonner Community Scholars from the Bonner Institute will help coordinate and supervise the “field” experience.

First Year Seminar Class Projects