Developing Equitable and Mutually Beneficial Virtual Community-Engaged Learning Opportunities


  • Casey A. Knifsend, PhD Department of Psychology, California State University, Sacramento
  • Chong U. Choe-Smith, PhD, JD Department of Philosophy, California State University, Sacramento



community partnerships, community-engaged learning, pandemic response, equity, mutual benefit, assessment


The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated an abrupt shift to virtual community-university partnerships for many community partners, instructors teaching community-engaged learning courses, and students. This shift exacerbated challenges to fostering mutually beneficial, equitable community-university partnerships, potentially affecting access to and participation in programs benefiting K-12 and college students alike. This paper discusses the Writing Partners letter exchange program, highlighting how challenges were considered and addressed, as well as ways we could improve in future semesters of community-engaged learning. Assessment data using surveys suggested challenges related to exchanging letters virtually and use of videos in lieu of an in-person university campus tour. Solutions included partnership meetings and early planning for future virtual events. We then discuss lessons learned and future directions for mutually beneficial and equitable community-university partnerships that could involve virtual work for various reasons. This paper adds to emerging literature which shares experiences related to virtual community-engaged learning. Sharing our experiences and lessons learned through the Writing Partners program will inform educators and administrators interested in implementing similar letter exchange programs, as well as those interested in learning more about community-university partnerships in the virtual space.


Authors. (2020, November 10). Details removed to preserve blind review.

Baron, D., Liggons, K., Pintor, D., Handrup, J., & Silva, R. A. (2022). Online community engagement enhances service learning. Vincentian Heritage Journal, 36(2), 1-11.

Bringle, R. G. & Hatcher, J. A. (1996). Implementing service learning in higher education. The Journal of Higher Education, 67(2), 221-236.

California State University, Office of the Chancellor. (2022). The CSU responds to the Coronavirus pandemic. Retrieved June 7, 2022 from

[University]. (2021). Antiracism and inclusive campus plan. Retrieved on June 17, 2022 from Link withheld to preserve blind review.

Chancellor’s Office Center for Community Engagement (COCCE). (2022, January 26). CSU-CEL taxonomy: Classifying a student-centered approach to community-engaged learning courses.

Crutchfield, R. M., & Maguire, J. (2019, April). California State University Office of the Chancellor study of student basic needs. Retrieved June 29, 2022 from

De La Garza, T. O., & Kuri, L. M. (2014). Building strong community partnerships: Equal voice and mutual benefits. Journal of Latinos and Education, 13(2), 120–133.

Dodge, K., & Pawaskar, S. (2020). Innovation through community partnership mapping and analytics. Metropolitan Universities, 31(2), 111–130.

Francom, G. M., Lee, S. J., & Pinkney, H. (2021). Technologies, challenges and needs of K-12 teachers in the transition to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. TechTrends, 65(4), 589–601.

Frank, J., Salsbury, M., McKelvey, H., & McLain, R. (2021). Digital equity & inclusion strategies for libraries. The International Journal of Information, Diversity, and Inclusion, 5(3), 185-205.

Jones, S., & Disberger, B. (2021, May/June). How COVID prompted service learning to come alive. The Agricultural Education Magazine, 93(6), 21-22. Retrieved June 29, 2022 from

Kiebler, J., & Stewart, A. J. (2022). Student experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic: Perspectives from first-generation/lower-income students and others. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 22(1), 198-224.

Kim, C. M., Silverman, B. R., & Cortes, C. (2021). The challenges and opportunities of sustaining academia-sponsored community service programs for Latinx youth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Hispanic Education, 20(3), 328-341.

Kuttner, P., Antunes, A., Cachelin, A., Fitisemanu, L., Folau, M., Hart, S., & Salcedo, A. (2022). Establishing principles for community-based research: Story & power in the Community Research Collaborative. Metropolitan Universities, 33(3), 52–68.

Lai, J., & Widmar, N. O. (2020). Revisiting the digital divide in the COVID-19 era. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 43(1), 1-7.

Ma, J. K.-H. (2021). The digital divide at school and at home: A comparison between schools by socioeconomic level across 47 countries. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 62(2), 115–140.

McGorry, S. Y. (2012). No significant difference in service learning online. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(4), 45-54.

Ohmer, M., Finkelstein, C., Dostilio, L., Durham, A., & Melnick, A. (2022). University-community engagement during a pandemic: Moving beyond “helping” to public problem solving. Metropolitan Universities, 33(1), 81–91.

Orellana, C. K., & Chaitanya, A. (2020). Striving for equity: Community-engaged teaching and learning through a community practitioner and faculty coteaching model. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 24(2), 85-106.

Reid, D. (2018, February 12). Details withheld to preserve blind review.

Reid, D. (2020, January 31). Details withheld to preserve blind review.

Ruch, C., & Trani, E. (1990). Scope and limitations of community interactions. Metropolitan Universities, 1(3), 27–39.

Ruble, A. (2020, October 12). CSU helps bridge the digital equity divide. The California State University System News. Retrieved June 7, 2022 from

[University’s] Anchor University Task Force (2019). Details withheld to preserve blind review.

[University] University Communications (2020). [University] fact book. [Fact book]. Link withheld to preserve blind review.

Sanders, C. K., & Scanlon, E. (2021). The digital divide is a human rights issue: Advancing social inclusion through social work advocacy. Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 6(2), 130–143.

Saw, A., Nau, S., Jeremiah, R. D., & Zakaria, N. b. (2021). Laying the groundwork for participatory research with a Rohingya refugee community. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. Advance online publication.

Schaus, M., Larkin, S., & Wilkinson, D. (2022). All that you can’t leave behind—Essential post-COVID technology and pedagogy. Metropolitan Universities, 33(1), 27–36.

Tian, Q. & Noel, T, Jr. (2020). Service-learning in Catholic higher education and alternative approaches facing the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Catholic Education, 23(1), 184-196.

Schmidt, M. E. (2021). Embracing e-service learning in the age of COVID and beyond. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication.

Waldner, L. S., McGorry, S. Y., & Widener, M. C. (2012). E-service-learning: The evolution of service-learning to engage a growing online student population. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 16(2), 123-150.

Waldner, L. (2015). eService-learning: Breaking through the barrier. In J. R. Strait, K. Nordyke, & A. Furco (Eds.), eService-learning: Creating experiential learning and civil engagement through online and hybrid courses (pp. 20-39). Stylus Publishing.