If Mary Leuci had a favorite proposition, it would definitely be the word “with.” When discussing the concept of community engagement and the role it plays at the University of Missouri and the surrounding community, she gives the word a special emphasis.
“Engagement is really about how the University engages with the community for mutually beneficial reasons and it’s not just about how we go to work for communities or do things to them,” says who serves as an assistant dean for community development within CAFNR and has been involved in collaborative and interdisciplinary initiatives in various capacities at MU since 1986.
“We work with them and it’s mutual learning… We bring our research and our skills and experience to it. There is knowledge in a community that is a different kind of knowledge that is equally as important and it’s why we together to advance mutual knowledge.”
On Sept. 30, Leuci became the first MU faculty or staff member to be inducted into the Academy of Engagement Scholarship during a ceremony that took place at Pennsylvania State University at State College, Pa., at the annual meeting of the Engagement Scholarship Consortium. Fittingly, she took to the stage with nine other recipients as the second group of inductees who represented universities from the U.S. as well as Canada and Australia.
Making an impact
“She cares deeply about people. She often serves as a servant leader by recognizing the strengths of each person and encouraging leadership to move around as issues are being addressed. She believes in mutually beneficial collaboration,” says Pat Sobrero, the academy’s president who personally nominated Leuci for induction. “She’ll cultivate leadership among the members of whatever group she’s working with.”
Sobrero first met Leuci in 1999 while beginning as the associate vice president for university outreach and extension at MU before leaving the position in 2003. Sobrero quickly took note of how Leuci always made sure to engage with community members regardless of what the project entailed. The work that the academy, which was established in 2012, hopes to pursue is rooted in that same spirit of mutual learning that Leuci has helped promote during her 29 combined years at MU and the Community Development Extension Program, both at statewide, national and international levels.
“It’s sitting down with people and then discussing priority issues, then listening to find out how the university can work with the community to accomplish the desired outcomes,” says Sobrero, who was also inducted into this year’s class. “How do we take the results of that work and publish it with peers so that we can learn from thre results, then improve? Mary has done that for as long as I’ve known her.”
As an academy member, Leuci looks forward to meeting with the 22 other members to help publish, review and promote academic papers devoted to establishing best practices for community engagement for all universities regardless of differing cultures or other factors. “I’m excited about being to help promote and shape and give credence to this concept in hope that it elevates the work of so many unsung people on this campus and gives validity to what they do.”
Many voices, one outlet
As a student at MU, Leuci earned a B.S. in agriculture in 1977 and a M.S. in adult education in 1986, before her career path drew back to campus. When reflecting on the various initiatives that she has helped begin at MU, Leuci’s memory goes back to the early ’90s when helped coordinate the Missouri Rural Innovation Institute to create two statewide rural health satellite conferences.
It was a tall task during a time without Internet connections or other modern ways of instantaneous mass-communication. Each conference had representatives from 80 of the state’s 114 counties. Leuci relied heavily on face-to-face interaction involving students and community members throughout the state for that particular project.
“I think that’s part of engagement,” Leuci says. “It’s not just engaging our community, but allowing our students to be a part of that, allowing the coursework they do, either in the classroom or as practicums or internships. That whole experience had a tremendous impact on my own way of thinking about partnership.”
MU as a whole has been recognized nationally for its engagement as both a member of the Engagement Scholarship Consortium since 2012 and being classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a community-engaged campus earlier this year.
Leuci says, though, that CAFNR in particular can be proud of its overall engagement practices, including providing headquarters for both the Cambio Center, and its promotion of research and outreach relating to the Latino community, at Gentry Hall and the work of the Center for Applied Research and Environmental Systems (CARES), based out of Mumford Hall.
“I think one of the things we can be extremely proud of is how our faculty engages with our students but then gets them engaged as well back in their communities with internships, with service learning, with opportunities to participate in research that’s relevant,” Leuci says.
She also mentions the work that Dave O’Brien, professor of rural sociology in the Division of Applied Social Sciences, does with his research class by sitting down with a selected community’s members to conduct survey work that can cultivate an open forum between the students and anyone gathered at the table. Such a dialogue is music to Leuci’s ears. It’s the same sentiment that inspires her to create hand-written cards, often made with oil pastels, ink and origami paper: creating a personal touch to any situation.
“I do have a strong belief in the fact that you do have to honor people’s unique contributions,” says Leuci, who also serves as an associate extension professor in rural sociology. “At the same time, I have very strong believe in the concept of community; so that’s part of where my own work and scholarship is around — to get to that joint decision, the joint way of moving forward, but still honoring that input and the belief that you build off of the assets that exist in any group or community.”