Alum wins international award for dissertation on community-engaged learning 

October 26, 2023

MSU alum Stephanie J. Brewer was selected as the sole recipient of the International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement’s Dissertation Award.  

This award acknowledges a dissertation that advances research on service-learning and community engagement. It also celebrates work that has the potential to impact the field, communities and practices.  

A selfie photo of Stephanie Brewer.
“This work opened up opportunities for practitioners and educators to grow in shaping how projects are structured and managed,” said Stephanie Brewer.

Brewer examined undergraduate community-engaged learning experiences and the impacts experiences had on student mental health and well-being. Community-engaged learning can include experiences like spending a semester engaging weekly with a local classroom providing tutoring services, or conducting research in partnership with a local non-profit in an effort to secure grant opportunities. Brewer earned her Ph.D. in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education from the MSU College of Education in 2023. 

“For many students, this type of opportunity can have really positive impacts. It can also be stressful and overwhelming,” said Brewer. “This work opened up opportunities for practitioners and educators to grow in shaping how projects are structured and managed.” 

Brewer interviewed undergraduate students who participated in a semester-long community-engaged learning experience. Three central themes emerged in her dissertation: Academic Community-Engaged Learning and Student Mental Health and Wellness: Understanding the Lived Experiences of Undergraduate Students.  

  • “Learning experiences often invited students to reflect on their past,” Brewer said. This sometimes happened in unexpected ways. For example, one student’s learning experience was in partnership with a Latinx community leader. It prompted them to think about their experiences as a first-generation Latinx college student. The student described how they were able to connect with the community leader around their identity-based experiences, but it also impacted the student in ways they didn’t expect. The student described asking: “What does this evolved understanding of my past mean for my life as a student moving forward?” 
  • The experience also asked students to be vulnerable, compassionate, open and trusting — with themselves and with others. This included fellow students, professors and community partners in their learning experiences, many of whom they did not know. For example, a student might have become emotional when recounting a personal story during class. The student might have been nervous to share, but they often found other students were understanding, and sometimes became emotional, too. Students felt a sense of belonging with others who shared similar experiences, and who reciprocated these acts of vulnerability. Brewer described these experiences as having a positive emotional impact on the students.
  • Students were also able to “find their own voice” within the learning experiences, said Brewer. Students were able to make decisions about and within their experiences and choose what and when they would describe such experiences. Moreover, many students often described a sense of motivation to continue the work even after the learning experience ended. Brewer found students often discovered how they could support causes or were able to find ways to connect their experiences to align with professional goals.  

MSU is one of many higher education institutions to offer such community-engaged learning experiences. There are many national and international organizations that support experiential learning as well. The Center for Community Engaged Learning supports this work here at MSU. 

The broad usage of this is exactly what excites Brewer most about the award.  

“I am really excited about the recognition for the topic of mental health and wellness, bringing that to the forefront,” Brewer said. “It is incredibly important. I hope the research sparks interest in others who have ideas about how to support mental health and wellness in their own work.” 

Brewer will formally receive the award at the International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement on October 26.