Meaningful Partnership: An Intersection of Collaboration and Service Learning

The Community Design Studio is a unique course offered in collaboration between the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) School of Design, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) Department of Sustainable Resources Management, and the Mary Ann Shaw Center for Public & Community Service (Shaw Center). In this course, students go into the community and work with local nonprofit organizations to redesign existing spaces through beneficial design solutions.   

School of Design Associate Professor Seyeon Lee started the Community Design Studio in 2017. Recognizing the importance of service learning, Lee wanted to create a collaborative, multi-faceted opportunity that supports both community partners and student learning. Along with Lee, Assistant Teaching Professor Zoriana Dunham co-instructs the course, with the support of ESF Construction Management Engineering (CME) Associate Professor Endong Wang. 

Becoming a service-learning initiative in 2022, the Shaw Center offers support and management through streamlining the progress of the project. Leadership Intern Iona Volynets ‘24 and Shaw Center Coordinator Laurel Morton work with project partners and students.  

“One of the core objectives of this course is to make our students aware of what is happening in our community,” Lee said. “They begin to really understand Syracuse as a community- its struggles and who they are- because a lot of times, students’ understanding of Syracuse is SU property, nothing beyond.” 

The Community Design Studio, also known as Meaningful Partnership, combines the SU Environmental and Interior Design DES 451 studio course and the ESF Construction Management CME 454 course on a year-long project. In the fall semester, DES 451 students and faculty work with a local nonprofit (considered their client) to examine existing design structure of their facility and assess potential areas of improvement. 

Several SU Environmental and Interior Design (EDI) student teams develop plans in accordance with the client’s aspirations for redesign. Through an extensive process, students and faculty conduct several site visits and client meetings, as well as in-depth research and design development. At the end of the semester, each student group presents their final design to the client.  

In the spring semester, the construction planning begins. CME students work with EDI students to understand design concepts and develop construction plans. 

In the 2022-23 academic year, Meaningful Partnership worked to redesign the North Side Learning Center, an organization that provides resources for refugees and immigrant populations within the Syracuse community. “We work with nonprofit organizations whose focus is to support the minority, underrepresented, and immigrant demographics here in town,” Lee says. Last year’s project redesigned the center for a more accessible building for different levels of ability. 

Meaningful Partnership is an exemplary model of service learning and collaborative partnership. Certainly, this course allows students to engage in an invaluable experience of tangible learning.  

“This class gives students a taste of what it’s like to have industry partners, working with these real projects,” Lee said. “Community engagement is the vital facet of this project because we get our students out in the community, walking the streets and making observations.” 

Reciprocally, the community partners gain important resources from the partnership. Documents developed through the project are provided to the partner and can be shown to potential funders and future contractors. These nonprofits are then able to further grow in support of their communities. 

Enhancing academic experience through community engagement is foundational to the goals of the Shaw Center. Meaningful Partnership has created a significant opportunity that allows important skills application and innovation for students. 

“Working with the class has been so inspiring,” Leadership Intern Volynets said. “In reading student reflections, I’ve learned so much about the challenges and the rewards of service learning. It’s obvious how much time and thought the students put not only into the design itself, but into getting to know the institution and the community they’re working with.” 

Meaningful Partnership is currently working with the South Side Communication Center this academic year and continues to be a model for service learning through strong community partnerships.  

“That long-term commitment to the community is really where its impact is,” Meaningful Partnership Project Coordinator Laurel Morton said. 

Written by Ava Portney ’26