UniverCity Alliance Celebration 2023

During the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s 175th anniversary, UniverCity Alliance held a celebration event recognizing the accomplishments of local Wisconsin communities and UW–Madison students through UniverCity’s partnership programs. The event served as a retrospective of the partnerships that have grown and communities that have been impacted because of the existence of UniverCity. 

City of Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway told the audience it’s no coincidence that the university and the state of Wisconsin are the same age.  

“We as a state collectively, historically recognize that if we were going to have a state, that we were going to need a center of learning and knowledge, and the point of that should be to serve the state,” Rhodes-Conway said at the Sept. 8 event. “It’s important for people to understand how really important the university is to the state of Wisconsin.” 

This is UniverCity’s mission: to support local Wisconsin communities by leveraging resources at the university. 

“UniverCity Alliance is the essence of the Wisconsin Idea,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I am passionate about cities and having that connection between the university and local governments in our state is a critical function.” UCA has served Madison by connecting them with UW–Madison researchers when data analysis or other immediate questions arise.   

Provost Charles Isbell said that the commitment to the Wisconsin Idea drew him to UW–Madison. He thanked those in attendance for their work with local communities, saying that “everything we do is really about people.”

“This is exactly why we do what we do, why we care about having impact, and why we know we come from a place like this,” Isbell said.

Over the last eight years, UniverCity has developed a positive reputation of working with Wisconsin local governments after partnering with over 30 communities and completing more than 300 projects. UniverCity has worked with 36 communities (seven will be announced in early 2024) since its first partnership in 2016. 

City of Milton Mayor Anissa Welch represents one of the 36 communities that have partnered with UniverCity. Milton is currently working with UW–Madison students, faculty, and staff on a range of projects addressing enhanced communications, strengthening community connection, and creating a culture of diversity, inclusion, belonging and lifelong learning, and building a resilient city.  

 “A result of engaging with UniverCity is it assists individual organizations and a community to refocus and it motivates thoughtfully and intentionally and as objectively as possible, review their own standards, their values, where they are and where they want to be,” Welch said. “This all takes place  within a very supportive framework.”  

The Village of Waunakee partnered with UniverCity from 2020-23 to make their community a more welcoming place and to help them grapple with issues of racial injustice. That partnership continues to evolve today. An anthropology course is working with Waunakee to create a traveling museum exhibit focusing on the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin 

Village Administrator Todd Schmidt quantified the impact of the partnership not on projects completed but on the lives of residents that have been affected. 

“Waunakee’s population is now 16,165. What I think of is that Waunakee has 16,165 souls for whom we have responsibility to care for,” Schmidt said. “If you were to do the math on communities that have partnered with UniverCity, and you could put a top number of the souls for which these projects generate care, you are talking about lives touched.” 

UniverCity is made possible because of UW–Madison’s faculty, staff, instructors, and students who partner with this program. These groups were recognized at the event.  

Andrea Hicks, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, has partnered with UniverCity since 2017 when she was looking for ways to make her students’ projects more meaningful.  She said these community-based projects “enrich the educational process for all of my students.”  

“In their guided reflections, the students talk about how they’ve heard about sustainability a lot, but they haven’t really figured out what to do with it or what it means in practice,” Hicks said. They go on to share that through the UniverCity projects they “learned so much” and report that they are “actually meaningful.”  

School of Journalism and Mass Communication Director Kathleen Bartzen Culver’s Journalism & Mass Communication 411: Multimedia Design students partnered with Polk County through UniverCity. Culver said her students are able to clearly understand how useful the skills they’re learning in the classroom are for their future careers.  

“They also appreciate supporting a community through their work,” Culver said.  

Outside of courses, Kaiping Chen, an assistant professor in UW–Madison’s Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC) and her team worked with UniverCity to partner with Wisconsin EcoLatinos and Urban Triage to host environmental justice discussions.   

Chen expressed appreciation for UniverCity Alliance and Managing Director Gavin Luter connecting her with local leaders and organizations.  

“UCA and (Luter) grew my confidence and inspiration to do Wisconsin Idea work,” Chen said. “This made me determined to continue this partnership to bring justice to communities.”    

Through UniverCity, UW–Madison students receive unique opportunities to work with Wisconsin communities. These experiences impact them beyond their academic coursework.  

Hazel Behling ’22 completed a UniverCity summer internship while at UW–Madison, which combined her interest in community organizing and reformation of the criminal legal system.    

“It helped me gain skills that I carry with me today,” Behling said.   

Behling is currently a rural health equity coordinator with the UW Madison Department of Family Medicine and Community Health and works on social determinants of health with a focus on community building and community voice.    

“UniverCity Alliance and groups like them really embrace the Wisconsin Idea and really reimagine how to really work in collaboration to learn from and with our community partners,” Behling said. “Thanks to UniverCity Alliance, I will always center community voices.”  

In addition to working on a UniverCity project with Outagamie County to disaster-proof their critical facilities in an engineering class, junior Shawn Zhu also enrolled in Urban and Regional Planning 215: Welcome to Your Urban Future. This course inspired him to join Madison’s Affirmative Action Commission and was later elected on to the city’s Small Business Enterprises Appeal Committee.   

“Being involved in the community is something I think is deeply important,” Zhu said. “Through the classes that I’ve taken and experiences I have on the commissions I’m on, I’ve been able to directly take all the knowledge that I’ve learned throughout my studies and apply it to projects that have real world impact.” 

Mark O’Connell, president and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Counties Association, and League of Wisconsin Municipalities Executive Director Jerry Deschane underscored the messages shared by UCY’s community partners.  

O’Connell described the “magic” of UniverCity: “UCA is taking these incredibly bright young people, and marrying them to the challenges of the day in our localities … and putting them to work to solve these problems.”  

He said those who work in public policy have an obligation to help people they will never meet to build a better future.  

“Not only do the young people come away with experience, not only do the municipalities and counties come away with options for dealing with the challenges of the day … the citizens of the state and the future that is so important to every one of us benefits,” O’Connell said.  

Deschane said UCA is a successful combination of the university and local governments. His ask: “Let’s do more.” From budgeting to climate change and addressing ice on sidewalks, the university can partner on numerous issues.  

 “We need more and more and more young, energetic, creative people in everything from sewer system engineering to mayors,” Deschane said. “What UniverCity has been doing starting in Monona, Wauankee, Portage, Madison – all over Wisconsin – will pay dividends for decades.”   

All photos credited to Hedi Lamarr Rudd.

–Abigail Becker