Over the last few glorious weeks of summer, and as we welcomed students back to Mayflower Hill for another year at Colby, I’ve been privileged to meet with dozens of Waterville community leaders — from clergy to doctors, law enforcement to educators — to collaborate on a vision of our new civic engagement enterprise on Main Street.

This week, we will celebrate the “topping-off” of the building at 150 Main St. when the last steel beam, signed by many community representatives, is hoisted into place. That moment will represent an important milestone, marking genuine progress toward our goal of creating a new home for civic engagement. When it opens in 2018, the development will house 200 Colby students, faculty and staff in a unique program blending community work, academics and service in a rapidly revitalizing downtown and beyond.

Right now, it is still steel beams, pipes, and concrete, but I tell people that this building will be an actual bridge between downtown Waterville and Colby — students, faculty and staff. My hope is that when students live, study and work in the community they serve, they will see themselves as members of that wider community, that this enterprise becomes about being responsible for and accountable to and with each other.

This is not solely about growth for Colby students. On my “listening tour,” I learned about the community’s hopes and expectations for this project. Groups ranging from Hardy Girls to the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, from the Waterville Police Department to Waterville Creates!, and so on and so on, conveyed the same clear message: Folks in Waterville want Colby to be consistent, communicative and collaborative. They want the College’s actions to match our words and plans. They want us to meet more regularly with residents, to share our projects and resources, to approach civic engagement in a way that doesn’t feel like an after-thought. And they want to be involved with us, engaged with us in meaningful collaborative work.

We had a wonderful glimpse of how that would look last week, when Theaster Gates, the internationally renowned artist and first fellow of Colby’s Lunder Institute for American Art, spent time in the South End, brainstorming community-based solutions to neighborhood problems. Together, residents and Gates creatively generated ideas for improvement in the South End. Gates’ visit is just one example of how Colby can offer productive engagement with Waterville.

I am often asked what civic engagement will look like under the new program downtown. After all, Colby students already offer thousands of volunteer hours in the schools, homeless shelter, the Alfond Youth Center, and other nonprofits in Waterville.

The new program will serve to concentrate the power of our existing service, revolving around a strong academic core.

The 200 sophomores, juniors and seniors living at 150 Main St. will be selected for their prior community work and a demonstrated high level of interest in the program. Faculty residents will teach in areas aligned with civic work, and classroom and study areas in the building will allow seminars and classes to be taught there. Nonresident faculty will be encouraged to teach and lead field work downtown. Internships, fellowships, and independent studies based on work in the community will strengthen the academic core of the program, as students begin to see themselves as members of the community, not merely observers.

My greatest hope is that this endeavor will come to reflect true reciprocity: forward-thinking, action-oriented partnerships that allow for deep engagement and reflection with one another to enhance the learning and lived experiences of many. With hard work and a bit of humility, I am confident the feeling of isolation and the notion of separate town and gown “silos” will begin to dissolve. Ultimately, that is the highest meaning of civic engagement, and the benefits from that partnership will persist years into the future — for everyone.

Karlene Burrell-McRae is dean of the college at Colby College in Waterville and a 1994 Colby graduate.

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