For nearly 14 years, Iowa Campus Compact has been quietly building a network of higher education institutions across the state that are focused on a common mission — to help students increase their level of engagement in their college and workplace communities. 

Currently, the Des Moines-based nonprofit organization has 22 member institutions in Iowa, including all three of the regents universities, 18 private colleges and one community college. Iowa Campus Compact is part of a national organization founded 30 years ago by a couple of East Coast college presidents interested in collaborating to support higher education’s civic mission. 

“Our goal is to really support (the institutions) in achieving that civic mission, and we do that in a lot of different ways,” said Emily Shields, executive director of Iowa Campus Compact. “We do a lot of professional development for faculty and staff who are directly engaging with the community. And we provide opportunities where students can get directly involved.” 

One of the organization’s current projects is a partnership with Principal Financial Group Inc. in which it is helping to coordinate a new Principal Scholars program involving Campus Compact chapter members from Iowa as well as California.  

Iowa Campus Compact also works with the Corporation for National and Community Service, and has 150 AmeriCorps college student members who serve around the state. 

“Going into next year, we have about 15 full-time positions for people who have graduated, who can then continue to work on campus or in community organizations to build capacity for campus and community partnerships,” Shields said. “We’re also trying to build a network in the state so that people doing this work on campuses can connect with each other.” 

One of the key points that Shields emphasizes to employers: The soft skills that students gain by volunteering in their communities are really the same sorts of skills that businesses are seeking. To better deliver that message, Shields recently began posting blogs detailing success stories of Iowa graduates whose community involvement has made a difference. 

One blog, for instance, highlights the value that Dance Marathon — an annual fundraiser for Children’s Miracle Network — has for University of Iowa students who get involved in that experience. 

“They’re getting a tremendous learning experience; they’re leading a multimillion-dollar fundraising effort,” Shields said. “So it’s far beyond the usual internship experience because they’re the ones doing it. Many students point to that as the main experience in college that they will remember, that they will use in their job, that helped open up career opportunities for them.” 

Research by Iowa Campus Compact shows that businesses leaders generally understand the importance of these experiences, but they may not be seeing the whole picture, she said. 

“They know that students can get this (benefit) from real-world experiences, but the discussion is often just about internships, and not this broader range of opportunities that colleges are offering students. And with parents, what we’ve seen with the research is that maybe they need a little more convincing. 

“We also want to develop more resources for parents and business leaders to be thinking about this,” Shields said. “Down the road, what we’re planning to do is put together some ideas for business leaders to better evaluate the quality of community engagement that a student has on his or her resume.”