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An Interview with Taffany Lim, Executive Director for Cal State LA Center for Engagement

Posted on Wednesday, September 15th, 2021

Today's post is by guest author Dr. Ray Pun, Education and Outreach Manager at The Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Curious about the service learning/community engagement perspective from an administrator? Wondering what your administrator colleagues are thinking about regarding service learning, collaborations with libraries, and COVID-19? In this interview, Ray Pun, an academic librarian, spoke with Taffany Lim, Executive Director for Cal State LA’s Center for Engagement, Service & the Public Good regarding her programmatic efforts before and during COVID-19, partnerships with the academic libraries, and the return on investment with service learning programs. This interview was conducted on August 5, 2021 at 12 pm PST via Zoom. 

Taffany Lam headshot

Ray: Thanks for speaking with me! Can you tell us a bit about your work and how you support service learning and community engagement programs?

Taffany: I'm the founding director for Cal State LA’s Center for Engagement, Service and the Public good. It's President William A. Covino's legacy center and one of the first things he created when he came to this campus in 2014. The Center speaks to our core values as a university. The Center was created to serve as a hub of collaboration and reciprocal partnership between the community and the university. 

The Center for Engagement, Service and the Public Good serves as an umbrella to several diverse service and community engagement programs. We have the Office of Service Learning and Community Engagement which provides training, technical assistance and support to faculty who are offering service learning courses or conducting community-based research. We offer a number of programs that offer direct support to children and families in the community, including America Reads and Counts (tutoring and teacher support to elementary schools) and Jumpstart, which trains a corps of Cal State LA students to help preschool aged children improve their early literacy and kindergarten readiness. We oversee a large-scale Americorps program that assigns our students to serve the southeast Los Angeles region and provide Covid education and vaccination outreach to the community. Finally, we also have a Project Rebound program that supports formerly incarcerated students to help them matriculate and graduate from Cal State LA and we have developed the Prison BA Graduation Initiative, the only face-to-face bachelor’s degree completion program for incarcerated students in the state of California. So we’re very busy! 

Ray: So was there a community engagement or service learning program or activity before you started the center?

Taffany: Yes, Cal State LA has had a very active Office of Service Learning for many years.  It has morphed over time to be more responsive to faculty needs. The faculty director provides technical assistance and training for faculty. We also help faculty connect with community partners and we offer mini-grants to help faculty with their service learning projects. 

Ray: Since the pandemic is still going on, how have you and or your colleagues supported students interested in service learning, or community service programs during this time, any challenges or opportunities, you'd like to share with us?

Taffany: It's been hard because there have definitely been faculty that were interested in doing service learning, but many of the nonprofit agencies did not have the capacity for in person service learning opportunities. Many nonprofit organizations have been hit very hard during COVID -- many of them had to shift the services they offered or had to shut their doors. 

However, we’ve been very creative!  For example, our America Reads and Counts program partnered with anthropology and kinesiology faculty and students to create a library of tutorial videos for elementary students that could help them with their studies and could be accessed whenever needed. Even during the pandemic, some of our service learning faculty came up with very interesting ways to have their classes collaborate with the University Library. For example, one of our history instructors led students from our Project Rebound program to assist with the Melvyn Dymally Exhibit at the library. Our students worked specifically on the section, “Letters Behind Bars: Writings from People Experiencing Incarceration.” Students helped to curate this exhibit by culling through his communication and working on the online exhibit.

This exhibit has led to another collaboration with the University Library and the Los Angeles Regional Re-Entry Partnership (LARRP). Students from Project Rebound are collecting oral histories of formerly incarcerated individuals as part of a project that will be developed in partnership with the University Library. 

Ray: What a great segue! We know that libraries can be great service learning sites or collaborators and I'm wondering if you want to elaborate more on those experiences or thoughts you'd like to share, and how libraries can partner with service learning programs.

Taffany: There are many ways that libraries can be partners in service learning and community engagement. For example, Cal State LA’s University Library has worked with many of our programs to help build awareness about important topics and pressing issues.Our library has been really collaborative and helpful in many different ways. One of our most successful examples would be the partnership between the library and Dr. Juily Phun from our Asian American Studies Department. We provided Dr. Phun with a small mini-grant to pay for voice recorders and her students conducted interviews with elderly first-generation Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles. The University Library assisted with the collection and archives of the interviews and hosted exhibit space and kiosks so the public could see artifacts and listen to the collection of oral histories while visiting the library. The library’s Special Collections unit continues to be involved in these projects (now in its fifth year), by providing workshops on transcription and indexing to service learning students

The University Library has partnered with other service learning faculty and community-based organizations to create the East Los Angeles Archives or to host experiential exhibits on incarceration. They have also partnered with us to co-sponsor panel discussions and even hosted yoga classes offered in partnership with our kinesiology department and Mind Matters program. The ways to partner with your university library are endless! 

Ray: Last question! I wonder for you, whether you get a lot of or hear a lot of conversations about the return on investment? The ROI for service learning and community engagement, in higher ed, tends to be looking at values, numbers and metrics and whether that conversation has been in your thinking?

Taffany: Many campuses struggle with effectively capturing the direct impact of service learning and the ROI. We’re getting better at developing and creating assessments, but we still aren’t completely there yet. However, I really do believe service learning and community engagement provides a significant return on investment, particularly as it relates to persistence. This is because -- especially on large campuses like ours - we really believe that service learning and engagement opportunities not only provide hands-on learning experiences, but they encourage a sense of connection and belonging. When someone feels like they belong to the campus and that their presence makes a difference, I believe they are more likely to stick through the hard times and persist. If you ask a student what their most memorable experience was while with Cal State LA, most of them will recall their service learning project over any other classroom experience. For example, in 2020-2021, our AmeriCorps students had to deliver more than 450 hours of service virtually. Everything was over Zoom, even trainings. During the end of the year review, the Americorps students told us how grateful they were for the experience because it allowed them to feel like they were a part of the Cal State LA community in a way that their online classes could not. Even if it was all over Zoom, they knew they were part of something bigger. I think that’s why, even during the summer when students are not receiving payment or course credit, they continue to volunteer with us by working graduation or staffing the Cal State LA vaccination site -- they do it because they feel so invested in the community. 


Taffany Lim is the founding Executive Director of Cal State LA’s Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good, which embodies the university’s commitment to community engagement and collaborative efforts that promote the public good. Lim is also the Founding Director of the Prison BA Graduation Initiative. Cal State LA is the only university in the state of California to offer a bachelor’s degree for incarcerated students. Lim’s background is in nonprofit management, training, and facilitation. She holds a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley, an MPA from the University of Southern California, and Ed.D., in Educational Leadership from California State University, Fresno.