VCU’s Lynn Pelco, a champion of civic engagement, recognized with national award

The associate vice provost for community engagement has been honored for her leadership by the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities.

Lynn Pelco
Lynn Pelco received the 2020 Barbara A. Holland Scholar-Administrator Award from the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities on Oct. 21. (Courtesy photo)

Lynn Pelco grew up in a working-class, Polish American family in segregated Pittsburgh. Girls in the community were encouraged “to get married, not attend university,” she said. As one of the first in her family to attend college, she experienced “the many ways campuses can sideline female, first-generation and low-income students.”

“My personal history influenced my path, my values and my leadership approach,” said Pelco, Ph.D., today the associate vice provost for community engagement and director of the Service-Learning Office at the Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Community Engagement and Impact

Pelco received the 2020 Barbara A. Holland Scholar-Administrator Award from the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities on Oct. 21. The award honors a midcareer scholar-administrator for their leadership and impact.

“This award is so important to me because it highlights the scholarly approach that I and other university administrators around the country have taken to community-engagement work,” she said. “Especially in 2020, when university budgets are under such severe stress, this award reminds us why forward-thinking institutions are recommitting to their community-engagement missions and actively supporting their community-engaged scholar administrators.”

Building inclusive learning communities

When she was an undergraduate, Pelco changed her major a few times, starting in journalism and ending in education. She completed her graduate work in school psychology.

“My interest in family-school-community collaboration was an early research interest of mine as a school psychologist,” she said.

Pelco led service-learning education abroad programs in Australia and the Caribbean for many years. Those experiences broadened her commitment to diverse and inclusive educational settings, she said.

“These experiences made clear to me the power of an assets-based approach to building inclusive learning communities and the critical need for creating diverse, community-engaged faculties and student bodies in higher education,” she said, adding that a diverse student body can’t thrive without a diverse faculty. 

Pelco left a tenured full-professor position at the College of William and Mary to become a scholar-administrator at VCU in 2009. Over the past decade, she has held an affiliate faculty position in VCU’s School of Education, led the development and launch of VCU’s ASPiRE living-learning program and created the Service-Learning Faculty Fellows Program. 

She has mentored 15 community-engaged faculty members, many of whom now hold leadership roles at VCU and other universities. Pelco’s achievements and initiatives include establishing a graduate and undergraduate service-learning teaching assistant program in 2009 that annually trains more than 80 students. She also was instrumental in founding the East End Cemetery Collaboratory, a University of Richmond-VCU partnership designed to restore the African American cemetery. The program was recently recognized by the University of Richmond as its 2020 Collaboration for Change Award winner.

A change agent

From 2016 to 2019 when Pelco chaired 
VA Engage, a collection of Virginia universities engaging in community partnerships, she worked with Jodi Fisler, associate for assessment policy and analysis for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

“Lynn has been an invaluable colleague and partner in [the council’s] efforts to enhance civic engagement and civic education at Virginias public colleges and universities,” Fisler said. 

One of the things Pelco enjoys in her work is mentoring early career professionals. “It has been a great privilege to play a role in their lives and to now consider many of them my friends,” she said. 

Tracey Gendron, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology in the VCU College of Health Professions, was one of her mentees. 

“Dr. Pelco was instrumental in supporting my professional development, guiding the expansion of my university-community partnerships and developing my teaching rigor,” Gendron said. “Her guidance and mentorship was the foundation upon which I grew as a teacher.”

Pelco said she is motivated by people who approach her with a new, creative idea. At VCU she has been able to support “these innovators, whether that means brainstorming design issues, connecting them with collaborators, seeking funding or co-writing,” she said. 

Cathy Howard, who led VCU’s community-engagement efforts in several roles for 31 years, describes Pelco as a community-engaged scholar, a leader in educational transformation and a change agent.

“She recognizes that the heart of the university is the faculty and that in order to impact students, faculty must be the conveyers of high-impact teaching practices such as service-learning,” Howard said. “She does not shy away from a challenge, especially if it involves opportunities for student success.”

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