Leveraging the Local University to Create New Programming

June 16, 2022, Department, by Jennifer L. VanSickle, Ed.D.

july 2022 we are parks and recreation leveraging the local university to create new programming 410

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At Garfield Park and Bethel Park in Indianapolis, youth camps are happening during spring and fall breaks without the use of park employees and at no cost to the park. How does this happen? And how can you make this happen at your park?

Service learning and experiential learning have become a prominent educational methodology in colleges and universities. These often include projects conducted with community partners that allow students to develop professional skills and apply course concepts while providing a program or service to a community partner. Partnering with a university can offer student learning opportunities while creating low-cost programming for your local park.

But how do these partnerships come together? And how do you approach a faculty member to create a mutually beneficial relationship that will lead to low-cost programming at your park?

Steps to Partnering

First, find an ally. Look on your local university’s website for a faculty member in sport management, recreation management or physical education/kinesiology. If the university does not have a sport management or recreation program, look for an Office of Community Engagement or Service Learning.These offices are responsible for helping faculty set up partnerships with local organizations for the benefit of community members and the institution. However, remember that faculty must plan their classes well before the start of the semester. So, if, for example, you are interested in a spring break program, you should reach out to faculty in mid-fall, around September or October, to start a conversation. This gives you several months to discuss ideas and create action plans before starting a project. Also, remember that faculty and students have limited time, are typically only available during the academic year, and programs offered during holidays and university breaks are off limits.

Once you have found an ally, the two of you must create a mutually beneficial goal. Look for ideas or programs that benefit both parties. Take time to determine your wants, needs and desires. For example, consider gaps in your park programming that could be satisfied by a group of college students or think of programming identified by your constituents that you are unable to provide. Share your thoughts and ideas with the faculty member and listen to their views until you come up with a goal that meets everyone’s needs. Be clear about your vision while being accepting of what the faculty needs. Consider starting small, perhaps with a half-day event or a one-day camp. Don’t try to do too much the first time. Create a program that can be repeated, as this will require less time planning and organizing in the future.


Now that you have a goal it is time to plan the details. Decide exactly what you expect the class to deliver for you. Then, with the assistance of the faculty member, create well-defined roles for yourself, students and faculty. Write these down and provide copies to all of your staff members. Be open to allowing the students to be involved in creating the objectives and strategies to meet the goal. Next, outline what you need to provide to the class, so that they can reach the goal. This may be equipment, policies, procedures, marketing materials, access to facilities or background checks. Agree upon deadlines for the completion of planning tasks and devise a plan with the faculty member for what will happen if deadlines are missed or required tasks are not completed. Additionally, find out what the faculty member needs from you or ask what you might expect from the faculty member. For example, will they be present during the implementation phase of the project? Also, establish communication expectations early in this process. For example, how should you contact the faculty member if there is a problem or concern? Will you provide your email address or phone number to the students and allow them to ask questions directly to you or do you prefer all questions to come weekly from the instructor? How quickly can or will you respond to students’ questions and requests? How quickly do you expect the faculty to respond to you?

Make sure you are an active participant with the faculty member in all phases of the process: goal setting, planning, decision making, marketing and implementing. Remember that if you say yes to a project, you will need to devote some of your time to the faculty, class and students. While this program may not require money from your budget, it will require your time. Plan to attend a class session when the faculty introduces the project to the students. Offer to host this class session in your park, at the site of implementation, and be present to hear what the faculty member tells the students.Be prepared to answer questions about your park, stakeholders, facilities, existing programs, marketing procedures, general policies and evaluation procedures. Be there during the event or program, but let the students be in charge. Allow them to lead, even if things don’t go exactly as planned. Remember, these students are learning. Allow them to come up with their own solutions or even do things differently than how you might do them, while helping them stay within the parameters set by the park, township or city government. Know that mistakes will be made, so identify your bottom-line expectation before the start of the project and adjust your expectations accordingly.


Once the program is over, evaluate it and the performance of the students. Sit down with your staff and generate quality feedback, noting both positive and critical aspects along with suggestions for improvement. Share your feedback with the faculty member first. Allow the faculty to help you decide the best pieces of feedback to share with the students. Then attend a post-event class session to provide your perspective directly to the students. Meet with the faculty after the feedback session is over to decide on a plan for the next semester or year. Is this something that you both are willing to do again? If so, record the changes and improvements that need to be made for the next time and create a new timeline for planning and implementation.

Indianapolis Case Study

For the past four years, University of Indianapolis (UIndy) students have been hosting fall and spring break camps for Garfield Park and Bethel Park. These are week-long day camps for youth in the area. University students market, plan and run the camps. There is a small fee for attendees at Garfield Park and the park collects and keeps the revenue from the camp. Bethel Park camps are free. Each park provides the space and equipment, assists with marketing and ensures that the camp meets park standards. Staff members are on-site to answer questions and handle emergencies that may arise during the camp, but the students are responsible for running the camp. Students and staffers meet before the camp, when the planning begins, and staffers make themselves available for questions during the planning phase. After the camp is over, all parties meet to evaluate the camp and staffers provide feedback to the students about their plans and performance. In a separate meeting with the faculty member, decisions are made about the future of the camp. Without this collaboration, these camps would not exist as neither park has the resources to do this on their own.

According to Pete Bolden, park manager at Garfield Park, “The relationship between UIndy and Indy Parks has expanded programming opportunities where the patrons, students and institutions all win. I would highly encourage other parks departments and universities to explore these relationship building opportunities.”

Derrick Miller, park manager at Bethel Park, notes, “The partnership we have with UIndy has been nothing short of awesome! Because of Dr. Jennifer VanSickle’s forward thinking and passion to see her students excel in all aspects of the sport management arena, Bethel has been a constant recipient of free fall and spring break camps that are totally organized and facilitated by UIndy and advised by park managers. This partnership allows us to offer high-level programs without impeding upon our limited budget. To that end, youth in our community are able to enjoy camp for free, as well as build healthy relationships with other caring adults.”

With a little initiative and clear communication, you too can create a low-cost program that will benefit you, your community, university faculty and students.

Jennifer L. VanSickle, Ed.D., is Professor of Sport Management at University of Indianapolis.