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Widener Receives $10,000 Grant from the Bringing Theory to Practice Project to Support Research on Student Well-Being

Widener University is one of 15 campuses nationwide to receive a $10,000 research grant for the 2015-2017 grant period from the Bringing Theory to Practice Project (BTtoP) for the investigation and advancement of student well-being and learning outcomes, particularly for those students traditionally underserved by higher education.

Bringing Theory to Practice is an independent project sponsored by the Charles Engelhard Foundation of New York City and the S. Engelhard Center and developed in partnership with the Association of American Colleges and Universities. To date, BTtoP has provided more than 500 campus grants and $10 million in total support since 2005.

With its $10,000 BTtoP grant, Widener University will examine and strengthen its first-year common experience, which is now in its third year. An interdisciplinary team of researchers will study whether students' understanding of the connection between personal well-being and civic purpose is affected by participation in a first-year program that features a common reading with related curricular and co-curricular activities and content focused on civic engagement and community.

“Fundamental to our understanding of ‘well-being’ at Widener University is civic purpose and living in the world meaningfully through engagement with the community and healthy citizenship,” said Dr. Janine Utell, professor and chair of English and one of two primary investigators for this study. “Therefore, we are most interested in how the first-year common experience and book might motivate students to engage in their communities and come to understand that their own well-being is entwined with that of their communities. We all participate in multiple communities, and we’re hoping to observe links among students’ experience of community at home, on campus, and in their cities and towns.”

Utell and Dr. Charlotte Marshall, visiting assistant professor of psychology and co-PI for the study, described in their grant application the potential implications for this work. They hypothesize that if students connect personal and community well-being, the result will be more sustained community engagement, rather than waves of civic service performed during college that wane following graduation. 

To implement the study, Widener faculty who lead the first-year common experience will integrate their teaching of a community-oriented reading – "Letters to My Younger Self," a collection of writings by men incarcerated at S.C.I. Graterford – with high-impact practices that stress learning in community. These practices include intensive and meaningful collaboration with faculty and peers around significant questions, written projects with continuous and actionable feedback, and the exploration of socially urgent issues from multiple perspectives.  Of paramount importance will be the teaching and understanding of narrative as essential for building community, including the use of story circles—the sharing of stories in community—as a pedagogical tool and research methodology. 

In addition to the qualitative data gathered through the story circles, students participating in the first-year common experience will write pre- and post-reflections based on guiding questions related to well-being. They will also complete Ryff questionnaires on psychological well-being, once at the beginning of the semester as a pre-test and once at the end as a post-test.


About Widener University

Widener University is a private, metropolitan university that connects curricula to social issues through civic engagement. Dynamic teaching, active scholarship, personal attention, leadership development, and experiential learning are key components of the Widener experience. A comprehensive doctorate-granting university, Widener is comprised of eight schools and colleges that offer liberal arts and sciences, professional and pre-professional curricula leading to associate’s, baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees. The university’s campuses in Chester, Exton, and Harrisburg, Pa., and Wilmington, Del. are proud to be a tobacco-free. Visit the university website,


About The S. Engelhard Center

The S. Engelhard Center is a 501c3 non-profit, public charitable foundation.  Its mission is expressed through its support of projects and initiatives that affect greater and sustained commitments by educational institutions at all levels to provide effective means of addressing the intellectual, emotional and civic development of today's students in preparation for claiming their positive future.


About AAC&U

AAC&U is the leading national association concerned with the quality, vitality and public standing of undergraduate liberal education. Its members are committed to extending the advantages of a liberal education to all students, regardless of academic specialization or intended career. Founded in 1915, AAC&U now comprises more than 1,300 member institutions—including accredited public and private colleges, community colleges, research universities and comprehensive universities of every type and size. Information about AAC&U membership, programs and publications can be found at