SMU’s Center for Academic Community Engagement (ACE) began in 1991 as the Inter-Community Experience Program, a campus wide initiative propelled by a group of faculty, administrators, and undergraduates who wished to link the SMU curriculum to social action. In partnership with Habitat-for-Humanity and Munger Place United Methodist Church, this group targeted the low income, minority neighborhood of Garrett Park East as the site where students would live, work, and apply their classroom experiences to the everyday life of a distressed community. As four students set up household in a rented home in the neighborhood, Chaplain to the University, William Finnin, began raising the funds needed to get the Program up and running. At the same time, faculty in the English and History departments began to devise departmental and General Education courses that would provide potential ACE students an academic, intellectual, and historical foundation for their work in the neighborhood. Marilynn Johnson (History) devised a course on the History of Urban Social Reform in America, James Hopkins (History) developed a class on the historical idea of Good Society and Eric Cheyfitz (English) devised a literature curriculum about the issue of social action in America, from Thoreau to the Present. The first ACE class was taught in Spring 1990 and held off-campus in space the Program rented from Munger Place UMC. As part of their course requirements students developed and managed an after-school tutoring program for neighborhood children supervised by the Program director, whose position was then an internship funded through the Chaplain’s Office. In this initial phase, course enrollments hovered around 15 students, with the program serving the same number of elementary and middle school kids. It was at this time that the program began to pick up both support from the general student population and national recognition, with articles about ACE appearing in The New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Dallas Morning News.
The next phase of the program began with the departure from SMU of Professors Cheyfitz and Johnson. Bruce Levy, PhD, assumed primary responsibility for the teaching of pre-existing ACE courses. He also began to develop and refine new courses that would further apply the “social action pedagogy” pioneered by Cheyfitz, Hopkins, and Johnson. Around this time ACE received a grant from Exxon to build an official ACE House in partnership with Habitat-for-Humanity. The new ACE House was completed in 1994, staffed with 3 students and a Resident Assistant from Residential Life and Student Housing. In 1997 Bruce Levy was appointed Director of ACE. In 1998, with the support of students, faculty and administrators who recognized the centrality of ACE’s academic mission, the Program, originally housed in the Chaplain’s Office, became a Center in Dedman College. The role of the Center’s director was expanded to include overall responsibilities for academics, programming, the ACE House, and grant writing/fundraising. During this time ACE class enrollments reached up to 50 students per class, and the after-school tutoring program expanded to 50-60 children.
In 1998 the ACE Center underwent a major transition when it received a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Coca-Cola Foundation. The grant required ACE to expand quickly and to move the center of its activities a mile north of its original site in Garrett Park to a local elementary school. Under the terms of the grant, the Center formalized its partnership with the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) and professionalized many of its activities. Continuing to engage students enrolled in ACE courses in community work, ACE also developed new tutoring and enrichment programs that required part time supervisors and approximately 20 work study students to manage and staff them. In 2000, the ACE Center was recognized as the Dallas County Agency of the Year.
Since 2001 ACE has maintained its relation with DISD, continued hiring students through the America Reads federal work-study program, and has developed new relationships with area schools (Ireland Elementary, Long and Cary Middle, Woodrow Wilson High School) and social agencies (Heart House, The Wilkinson Center, Wesley-Rankin Community Center, Si Puedes, I Have A Dream Foundation, Jubilee Park, St. Philip's School and Community Center). In January 2002, SMU assumed ownership of the House from Dallas Area Habitat-for-Humanity.
2011- to date
In the last two years some exciting programmatic changes have taken place at ACE under the new direction of Dr. J. Michael Cruz from the Department of Sociology. On site tutoring of local school children at the ACE House, for example, no longer takes place. Instead, SMU students who live in the ACE House engage in 20 hours of service work per semester with a community agency of their choice, in addition to five hours of service with/for their immediate neighborhood. This provides the sense of community ACE House was intended to create and cements SMU within the immediate area. We have programming and an application process that follow closely with that of the SMU Service House and we follow SMU RLSH guidelines for all issues related to housing. Additionally, we have revamped the ACE Fellowship program and modeled our application process after the Richter Fellowship. (For the ACE Fellowship, students now engage in 20 hours of service work each semester with a community agency of their choice in addition to conducting original research.) We have formed new relationships with area service agencies (most notably- Jubilee Park, I Have A Dream Foundation, St. Philip's School and Community Center) and we have partnered with the SMU Alternative Breaks Program, co-sponsoring the December trip to New Orleans.
We are excited to be growing and look forward to becoming an integral part of the University Curriculum.