Story Service Learning

CSU Campuses Help Cities Tackle Local Challenges

Christianne Salvador

Campus-city partnerships connect university resources to the needs of local governments.

San Diego State University​ students and faculty bring healthy food options to San Diego's underserved communities. Photo courtesy of Sage Project at SDSU. ​​​​​


​​​​​​​​​​​​City leaders are always looking for ways to improve our communities but staffs can be stretched thin with all of the myriad factors that go into running a municipality. Leaders often lack the capacity and time to address every issue, from affordable housing to air pollution.

Campus-city partnerships are a growing interest at the CSU that provide cities what the university has in abundance: students with the desire to make change.

Across California, CSU faculty and staff are collaborating with city officials to develop service learning programs that place students on the forefront of tackling high-priority city projects. Students are practicing what they've learned while relieving some of the workload of the cities' often understaffed and overworked departments.

“Working on city projects is impactful for both parties," says Jessica Barlow, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Regional Sustainability at San Diego State University. “Cities are able to dedicate more attention to urgent projects while students exercise their skills and creativity to solve pressing issues."

Course Credits for City Work

More than 500 San Diego State University students step up annually to serve the city of San Diego and its surrounding communities – and get course credit for it – through the Sage Project.

Every year, city officials submit their list of high-priority projects to Sage Project administrators, who then match the city's needs with class courses that could be enhanced with a project. Students work on a wide range of city projects, from homeless intervention to advancing sustainability.

Since projects are weaved into class curriculum, many more students are reaping the benefits of civic engagement as a high-impact practice without having to dedicate extra time to volunteering.  ​

​“Students who normally would not seek these opportunities on their own due to other obligations, like having a full-time job or raising a family, are participating in community engagement," says Barlow. “These real-world projects have led to increased student performances because students are not only working for a grade, they're aware that the city is counting on their work."

The students' impacts on the community are notable and transformative: the BrightSide Produce food delivery service was launched after students reported on food inaccessibility faced by San Diego's marginalized communities; a student-developed climate action plan led to the city of Lemon Grove becoming the first city in the U.S. to use a United Nations climate change toolkit; and award-winning murals beautify corner stores and breezeways. If you've ever spent time in the San Diego region, you've likely experienced the work of SDSU students.​

female student standing on ship Student-run BrightSide Produce delivers fresh produce to San Diego's low-income urban neighborhoods. (Photo courtesy of Sage Project)
Female student sitting at a table with California State Parks commissioners
Murals designed by SDSU students were installed by the community of Lemon Grove.  (Photo courtesy of Sage Project)
SDSU is part of the EPIC-Network, an international organization conne​​​​cting university resources to the needs of local governments. Chico State, Fresno State, CSU Monterey Bay and CSU San Marcos are also part of the network and have programs similar to the Sage Project. Barlow and other CSU staff are working to expand the network to all 23 campuses.

Maximizing a Diverse Student Body

The city of San José is strengthening relationships with its hard-to-reach communities, thanks to the work of San José State students.

Connecting with underserved communities poses language and cultural barriers for the city. As the CSU's diverse student body closely reflects California's ethnic makeup, the city of San José is tapping SJSU students to engage community members and establish a solid foundation of trust.

CommUniverCity deploys students to educate residents on social issues and empower them to take part in the decision-making processes that affect their neighborhoods. Students provide financial mentorship to residents of all ages, hold leadership workshops, and organize 'College Days' events to instill a college-going culture in the community.

By working side-by-side with city staff, students are building a bridge between residents and the city, amplifying the voice of underserved communities. CommUniverCity has received more than 20 regional, state and national awards, including a recent commendation by U.S. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren.

New Perspectives for Both Sides

“Campus-city partnerships allow residents, students, faculty and city staff to work together on helping the city thrive," says Daniel Fernandez, Ph.D., professor of environmental studies a​t CSU Monterey Bay.​

Land use presentation.jpg

Students and faculty explore ways to utilize resources available at the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve. (Photo courtesy o​f Sage Project)

Through CSUMB's Sustainable City Year Program, Fernandez's classes have conducted research that led to improved crosswalk safety in the city of Seaside and helped address food insecurity by creating an app that tracks the city's fruit trees.

“I've seen cities go in a direction they wouldn't otherwise have gone, based on the research and creative input from our students."

Fernandez, whose classes have participated in more than 75 city projects in the past five years, has witnessed first-hand how civic engagement sparks lasting compassion for the community.

“I've had students go on to work for the city full-time after their service learning experience. They've gained a deep understanding of the challenges that confront their cities and how their talents can be used to make a difference."​