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Recognizing those who change the world, one award at a time

By Stephanie Wilkes

An Outstanding Community Service plaque on the wall.
The 2007 winners of the Outstanding Community Service Award are listed on a wall in the Campus Club at Coffman Union on the Twin Cities campus.

From Brief, February 27, 2008

For more than a decade, the Outstanding Community Service Awards (OCSA) have been recognizing extraordinary service work done by members of the University of Minnesota community. This year, under the direction of Andrew Furco, the new associate vice president for public engagement, a few changes have been made to allow the award to better serve its purpose: to highlight and reward those who go above and beyond in the name of public engagement.

"OCSA have been an important part of the engagement efforts here at the University," says Furco. "They are one of the highest, most prestigious awards for service that the U gives and they honor the expertise and talent and efforts that University members--faculty, staff, students--and University-affiliated community members have given to service. They really spotlight and highlight some of the great work that is being done at the U."

The award, established in 1999 by U President Bob Bruininks, has traditionally been awarded to five or six members of the University community. This year for the first time, the awards will be judged in categories: one award each for a faculty member, a staff member, a student, a University-affiliated community partner, and an organization or individual in an annual service theme. (This year's theme is children, youth, and families).

Heidi Barajas, associate dean for outreach and community engagement in the College of Education and Human Development, feels that these newly developed categories will improve the award system. As chair of the awards committee last year, she saw the difficulty in comparing the range of service of those nominated.

"We were really comparing apples and oranges," says Barajas. "How do you compare a faculty worker, who has been around for 30 years and has had research opportunities and resources to do all sorts of impact work on communities, to a civil service worker who, just because they feel it's important to be an involved citizen, is on city councils and school boards and participates in festival days? It's really difficult to compare those kinds of things, in terms of impact, which is why I was glad to see the reconfiguration of the award--it shows that everything everybody does counts."

Another alteration to the award is its new focus on the idea of impact: a level of demonstrable value-added-to-the-public that has promoted positive change in the community or around important social issues.

"The different kinds of service are so multifaceted that it can be difficult to compare impacts," says Furco, "but our base criteria is this: if this service had not been done, things would be very different. It's about extraordinary impact and a means of change for the public good."

Nominate your hero
Do you know someone who deserves an Outstanding Community Service Award? Please visit the Office for Public Engagement for more information on the award and the nomination process. Nominations are due by March 14.

The final change to the award is in the nomination process. In addition to the two traditional nomination requirements, a narrative from the nominator detailing the work of the nominee and a letter from an external source who has knowledge of the work (community organization, local expert), this year the nominee is being asked to write a personal narrative about their experience, a task that Barajas hopes will give them a chance to "document and reflect" on their work and its effects on their life.

Barajas also hopes that people will take the time to nominate those they deem worthy.

"Good work, whether or not it's recognized, will continue to go on," says Barajas, "but I think that a lot of these people are very private and humble. They would never tell anybody that they did this work, so it's our job to look around us and recognize that."

The recognition for their extraordinary efforts is just one of the many benefits to receiving an OCSA. Barbara Elliott, a professor in the Medical School's Department of Family Medicine on the Duluth campus and one of last year's OCSA winners, says it provided others a chance to consider service and its endless possibilities.

"The acknowledgement of this award has brought recognition and attention to the projects I have been working on," says Elliott. "It allowed others who do different types of research to understand that the focus I have had is valuable, which has been validating."

Furco agrees, and sees the OCSA as a means of inspiration and encouragement.

"I think it's about bringing visibility to engagement and innovation," says Furco. "I think what the award recognizes is the possibilities of doing service in ways that we might not have imagined. It inspires, and it opens up people's minds about possibilities for doing service in innovative ways."

Despite the minor changes to the award, the motivation for giving it remains the same: to give something small back to those who give so much.

"I think there are a lot of unsung heroes, and it's time that their songs are sung," says Furco.

Stephanie Wilkes is a senior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail