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Author ORCID Identifier



Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Ryan S. Wells

Subject Categories

Civic and Community Engagement | Education | Higher Education | Service Learning


By its simplest definition, service-learning and community engagement (SLCE) connect work in the community and reflection on that work with credit-bearing academic courses. SLCE has been critiqued for, among other things, an incomplete consideration of power dynamics, and scholars and practitioners have recently expressed a desire to reinforce service-learning as primarily promoting agency, or the capacity to make change in society. Student-initiated community engagement programs offer a unique perspective and context to study agency. These programs, much like student-initiated retention projects, provide spaces where students take the lead in curriculum development, community partner relationship development, and program administration. Using Emirbayer and Mische’s (1999) trichordal theory of agency as a framework, this qualitative case study of a student-initiated and student-run community engagement program utilized in-depth, three-part phenomenological interviews to explore how seven student leaders made meaning of their experiences and their development of agency. Secondary research questions explored if and how participants felt connected to SLCE as a field and/or movement. Through inductive and deductive data analysis, major themes emerged that cut across all seven participants. Their sense of agency was influenced by structural components within the student-initiated community engagement program, including the program (1) being mission- and relationship-centered, (2) using particular pedagogical strategies, and (3) enrolling a critical mass of people of color in both student and student-staff roles. In turn, the participants’ sense of belonging in the program; awareness (including self-awareness, awareness of academic and career paths, and awareness for education access and equity); and their skill development were important factors in their development of a sense of agency. Trends in their sense of agency – named transformation, elevation, and frustration – illustrated some of the ways participation in student-initiated community engagement impacted them during the program and beyond. Ultimately, student-initiated community engagement can provide an important pathway for the development of agency, and offers lessons for all community engagement and service-learning programs, be them student-initiated or not.