In a record-setting cohort, University of Wisconsin-Madison’s UniverCity Year program is partnering with nine communities across Wisconsin during the 2022 to 2025 academic years and leveraging university resources to move forward their goals.
UniverCity Year (UCY) is the hallmark program of UniverCity Alliance – an initiative that connects local governments across Wisconsin with resources at the university. During the three-year program, students and faculty work with communities toward locally-identified goals.
“Communities are hungry to get fresh ideas and a jump-start on project ideas they have,” UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter said. “UW-Madison is a unique partner for these communities because we hopefully are perceived to be a neutral third party whose only interest is to help the communities improve.”
The nine communities include the villages of Cottage Grove and Shorewood; the cities of Marinette, Milton, River Falls, and Wausau; and Eau Claire, St. Croix, and Wood counties.
“We’re excited to partner with the UW system and tap into the innovative minds of our next generation of leaders,” said Jason Stroud, assistant city administrator for the city of River Falls, said. “The resources provided by UniverCity Year will be invaluable in developing creative solutions to the complex challenges we face as a local government.”
Through 2025, these partners will work with UCY staff to identify projects and partner with UW–Madison faculty as their students complete tangible deliverables that can be implemented into Wisconsin communities.
“I am thrilled to work with UniverCity Year on some of Wausau’s strategic challenges,” Mayor Katie Rosenberg said. “Smaller cities like Wausau typically run very lean and it doesn’t take much to disrupt longer term planning and positioning initiatives, so we’re excited to work with eager students on projects that will have lasting impacts on both our internal staff and our residents, business owners, and visitors.”
The communities applied to UCY to address a range of issues, including public health, sustainability, social support services, electric vehicles, historic preservation, and equity.
“Working with UniverCity Year will elevate our health priorities and bring additional capacity to this important public health work,” said Kristie Egge, supervisor of strategic initiatives for the Wood County Health Department. “It will allow students to get real-life experience working on initiatives to improve the health of rural Wisconsin residents.”
City of Milton Mayor Anissa Welch said she believes partnering with UCY will solidify the city’s commitment to creating a caring, thriving, and equitable community for all.
“The partnership will allow the city to leverage projects that align with our strategic plan and lead to not only stronger community engagement with the city but also fortifying connections with other foundational organizations throughout Milton,” Welch said.
While each community has unique needs, the UCY program has seen an increase in requests around child care issues, EMS recruitment and retention, affordable housing, program effectiveness, and environmental sustainability.
In the wake of the pandemic, Luter said communities have learned that the typical ways of doing business no longer holds.
“This is a huge moment for our local communities across Wisconsin as they come out of the pandemic,” Luter said. “The UniverCity Year program is here to help these communities rethink their standard ways of doing things.”
‘New and innovative solutions’
Since its first partnership in 2016, 20 communities have partnered with UCY. The new cohort brings the total to 29 communities, with 15 counties and 14 cities, towns, and villages participating.
The program illustrates the Wisconsin Idea in action, fostering active engagement between UW–Madison and Wisconsin local governments.
“UniverCity Year can be a program that brings these on-the-ground issues directly to faculty and students,” Luter said. “This helps us continue to stay relevant across the state, while also improving how we train students in applying their fields to public issues.”
UCY takes community-based scholarship and teaching to the next level by responding directly to community needs with university resources. Communities shape the deliverables that will meet their needs, and students receive a high-impact learning experience.
Community leaders are excited to work with students, both to consider new ideas and to contribute to their high-impact learning experiences.
City of Marinette Mayor Steve Genisot said the community hopes the process will bring “new and innovative solutions to the many projects we are working on,” while St. Croix County Justice Services Director Phil Galli said working with UCY will bring a “fresh perspective” to challenges facing the community, like increasing access to housing and treatment options for justice-involved individuals.
“I am eager to begin the partnership with UW through the UniverCity Year program,” added Cottage Grove Village Administrator Matt Giese. “Through our partnership, we will be able to provide experience, resources, and new connections for the UW students and bring innovations to staff and our residents alike.”
After the projects are identified, UCY staff will match them with faculty members and instructors who will incorporate the work into their courses or find other ways to get UW-Madison faculty, staff, and students working on these projects. UCY also provides support to participating faculty by facilitating meetings with the community and providing funding opportunities.
Students will present their recommendations to the community, however, the partnership does not end there. UCY staff will continue working with the communities to evaluate the feasibility of student recommendations and report on outcomes.
“The Village of Shorewood as an organization appreciates the lessons and progress that can be made from collaboration,” Village President Ann McCullough McKaig said. “This program will allow us to partner with talented, capable student groups on high impact projects that the Village Board has prioritized to be reviewed. We’re looking forward to the partnership and are excited for the work to start!”
By the end of the partnership, Eau Claire County Administrator Kathryn Schauf said she hopes the UCY experience “highlights what we can accomplish as we partner with diverse partners to solve problems.”
“We hope that the community will gain additional insight into the benefits of the UW system and the meaningful outreach that it can have to communities such as ours,” added Norb Kirk, finance director for Eau Claire County. “We believe that the completion of the projects we have outlined will enhance the citizens of the county and be an example of how communities can partner with the UW System for the betterment of both parties.”