About Engage Dallas

Engage Dallas advances the University's mission and commitment to increase the involvement of students in the local community. This student-led, faculty and administration supported, and policy-enabled initiative strives to enact positive social change. The initiative brings together students, key partners, and the Dallas community to address identified community needs.

Learn more about Engage Dallas, our key partners, and the team of studentsfaculty, and staff powering this initiative. 

Commons Crests

About Engage Dallas

Place-Based Community Engagement in Higher Education book cover graphicInstitutions of higher education are increasingly encouraged to incorporate high-impact educational practices into the curriculum (AAC&U, 2012). One high-impact practice posited by Kuh (AAC&U, n.d.) is service learning. Service learning is an educational pedagogy that provides students an opportunity to gain real-life experience outside of class and apply it to what they are discussing and learning in the classroom. However, traditional service-learning structures have limitations. For example, “in a traditional service-learning context an individual faculty member partners to offer an individual service opportunity . . . service-learning [is] isolated” to that particular class (Yamamura & Koth, 2018, p. 8). Yamamura and Koth (2018) suggested that institutions adopt the place-based community engagement model.

In their book Place-Based Community Engagement in Higher Education: A Strategy to Transform Universities and Communities, Yamamura and Koth (2018) differentiated place-based community engagement from traditional higher-education community engagement strategies like traditional service-learning pedagogy and anchor institutions. “Place-based community engagement is complementary to but different from these other major engagement strategies” (Yamamura & Koth, 2018, p. 12). Place-based community engagement is defined as “a longer-term university-wide commitment to partner with local residents, organizations, and other leaders to focus equally on campus and community impact within a clearly defined geographic area (Yamamura & Koth, 2018, p. 18).

A place-based community engagement model includes (a) geographic focus, (b) equal emphasis on campus and community impact, (c) long-term vision and commitment, and (d) university-wide engagement that animates the mission and develops the institution, as well as (e) draws upon the concepts of collective impact (Yamamura & Koth, 2018).

The Engage Dallas initiative operationalizes the place-based community engagement model for higher education. The model works well to connect University needs (i.e., application for Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement, SMU strategic plan, DSA strategic plan, and departmental constituent outcomes) and expressed community needs of west and south Dallas (Garcia, 2019; Schutz, 2019; Serve West Dallas, 2017). Utilizing the place-based community engagement model provides the Residential Commons at SMU a powerful way to creatively connect the campus with its surrounding community to foster positive social transformation as world changers. The table demonstrates the way the initiative maps to the place-based community engagement model. 

Engage Dallas Connection to Place-Based Community Engagement Model


Key Concept of the Model

Initiative Connection

A long-term, university-wide commitment to partner with local residents, organizations, and other leaders to focus equally on campus and community impact within a clearly defined geographic area

  1. Geographic focus


  2. Equal emphasis on campus and community impact

  3. Long-term vision and commitment



  4. University-wide engagement that animates the mission and develops the institution                                                                                                                                                                                                     
  5. Drawing upon the concept of collective impact
  1. West and south Dallas have been identified as the geographic focus.
  2. University benefits and expressed community needs are highlighted throughout the proposal.
  3. Connecting the initiative to the Residential Commons model will aid in long-term sustainability of the program and commitment to community needs.
  4. Residential Commons at SMU is a University-wide program and therefore proves to be fertile ground to plant such an initiative. It also animates the University mission as world changers.
  5. Focusing on a specific geographic area will allow SMU to be known in the community. The strategic geographic focus of resources from the University could aid community agencies in anticipating support for their work.

“While an increasing number of universities have or are committed to engaging their campuses in their surrounding communities, many recognize they lack the strategic focus and resources to maximize and sustain their impact on those communities” (Yamamura & Koth, 2018, p. 3). In developing community engagement strategies, most universities and community organizations face significant challenges in deciding which to partner with and why. Frequently, this leads universities and community organizations to say “yes” to too many opportunities, which significantly limits their ability to pursue long-term impact. Focusing on an established geographic area can make it much easier to decide where to deploy resources and which partnerships to prioritize—and thus increase the ability to form strong and sustainable partnerships that are of greater value to all stakeholders.

Powered by students and key partners, focused on the Residential Commons, and organized around the place-based community engagement model, Engage Dallas will provide a strategic focus for community engagement. The initiative not only benefits the Residential Commons, but could also serve as a hub or medium for service learning, cultural immersion, and other curricular approaches to increase the number of Mustangs connected to the Dallas community. In addition, the initiative will create valuable faculty resources and connections to further develop and benefit the south and west Dallas communities. 

Engage Dallas is a place-based community engagement initiative via SMU’s Residential Commons to address community needs focusing on South and West Dallas. The initiative is a long-term, university-wide commitment led by students to partner with local residents, organizations, and other leaders to positively impact the community. There is equal emphasis on campus and community impact stemming from the initiative.

Where we serve:

Zip codes in Dallas where Engage Dallas is active

The following strategic goals guide the work of the Engage Dallas initiative:

  1. Build capacity for social change in our local community
  2. Engage SMU students, staff, and faculty to serve, learn, and lead through the Residential Commons
  3. Advance the field of community engagement in higher education

SMU students work in a garden at an Engage Dallas eventIn spring 2019, Boaz Commons received an anonymous donation earmarked specifically for community service activities. Forming the basis for the present initiative were discussions in SCIE about Commons community service, guidelines in the strategic plan, and interest from the Office of the Provost. A brief description of the Boaz Commons community service initiative follows.

The Boaz Commons team comprising the faculty in residence (FiR), residential community director (RCD), and Commons Council director of compassion (student role) has structured its community service to be the same each year. Having a streamlined plan makes it easy for each director of compassion to follow through on community service in Boaz Commons. The ideal model includes one large-scale service day every year (a full day with 100% participation from the Commons), monthly service projects (smaller groups participating in an ongoing service project every third Friday afternoon), and an alternative break trip (10 to 12 Boaz students led by a Boaz faculty/staff affiliate in partnership with SCIE). These initiatives are led by the director of compassion and Compassion Committee members (6 to 10 additional Commons Council members) and are supported by the FiR/RCD team.

In addition to creating and implementing a yearly structure, Boaz Commons decided to focus its efforts on one social issue for its community engagement activities. This decision mirrors the way that a fraternity or sorority has one philanthropic effort as part of its identity. However, a social issue is broader than working with just a single Dallas-area organization and allows the community to connect in multiple ways. Focusing on one social issue is a way for the community to learn about service in depth, build intentional partnerships with a smaller spread of community partners, and see the selected social issue being part of the Boaz Commons identity. The Boaz Commons Compassion Committee looked at several social issues in partnership with SCIE and selected food insecurity as the social issue for Boaz Commons because of its many ties to current Boaz traditions and identity artifacts and symbols.

In the spring 2019 pilot, Boaz Commons selected a social issue, integrated the plan into the Commons Council structure, and engaged in a monthly service activity (serving at Feed My Starving Children, https://www.fmsc.org/). Additionally, Boaz Commons learned of a few roadblocks in the initiative and began to develop plans to overcome them. Boaz discovered the need for more structure and more resources—especially with the program being student-led. The director of compassion at the time of the pilot had difficulty scheduling service events and knowing how to contact individuals at various service organizations. In response, Boaz Commons has provided additional support functions in this area, which are currently underway.

Launching SMU's Second Century cover graphicWithin Launching SMU’s Second Century: Shaping Leaders for a Changing World, the University articulates goals and objectives for its second 100 years of higher education. We have curated the goals and objectives to which the Engage Dallas initiative contributes:

  • Increase involvement of students in internships and practical, field-based experiential learning on campus, in the local community, and around the world (Goal 2, Objective 6)
    • Incubate programs that use Dallas, north Texas, the nation, and the world as a laboratory and a classroom
    • Increase the number of students engaged and the variety of experiences such programs offer
  • Assess annually the Residential Commons living/learning environment to ensure that it provides for personal growth, intellectual and social engagement, understanding of personal responsibility, respect for others, and leadership opportunities (Goal 4, Objective 2)
    • Strengthen and assess programming that develops student success and personal growth, as well as promotes civic engagement, community, and diversity
    • Increase faculty and student engagement in co-curricular activities beyond traditional coursework in each Residential Commons
  • Expand and strengthen student leadership development opportunities both on and off campus (Goal 4, Objective 3)
    • Strengthen programs designed to develop student leadership and cultural competence through community service (e.g., alternative breaks, Mustang Heroes, Caswell Endowment for Leadership Development and Training, and Crain Leadership Summit)
    • Collaborate with the University Curriculum Council to qualify more student leadership opportunities for credit as one of the University Curriculum proficiencies and experiences

Key Campus Partners

Residence Life & Student Housing Group of Students Outside

Residence Life & Student Housing

Residence Life & Student Housing fosters the foundational SMU experience where every student belongs, learns, and connects through their residential community. SMU's Residential Commons are supported by Residence Life & Student Housing and are the backbone for this placed-based community engagement initiative
Office of Social Change & Intercultural Engagement Students filling boxes

Office of Social Change & Intercultural Engagement

Through campus and community partnerships, the Office of Social Change and Intercultural Engagement promotes inclusion, identity development, student success, awareness, advocacy, and agency through immersive community engagement experiences and social justice education. The office provides Engage Dallas with expertise related to education, training, and community organization partnerships.
Hegi Family Career Development Center group of students posing

Hegi Family Career Development Center

The Hegi Family Career Development Center at SMU is dedicated to serving the needs of SMU students and assisting employers in reaching qualified SMU candidates. Hegi provides guidance and oversight to the Engage Dallas internship program that allows students to gain work experience while supporting our community partners.
Office of General Education Three Engaged Dallas Students

Office of General Education

The Office of General Education provides leadership and guidance related to SMU's Common Curriculum. The Common Curriculum is a general education framework that prepares students to be lifelong learners in a rapidly changing, interconnected world. Engage Dallas is an approved university activity that enables SMU students to complete their Community Engagement Proficiency and Experience via the initiative.
Office of Engaged Learning Students gardening

Office of Engaged Learning

The Office of Engaged Learning enhances SMU's undergraduate education with experiential learning opportunities in research and entrepreneurship. This office hosts the following programs: Engaged Learning Fellowship, Undergraduate Research Assistantships, Big iDeas, and Clinton Global Initiative University. Each of these experiences can be connected to the Engage Dallas initiative as optional opportunities for deeper engagement.