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My CEL Experience

Making new friends when you move to a new place is tough, making new friends during a pandemic is even tougher. Through community engagement, I was able to break the ice with strangers, develop new friendships, and see the City from a local’s perspective.

When I moved from Southern California to Salt Lake City to start my master’s program in City and Metropolitan Planning, I was concerned that I would not be able to receive the same rich educational experience and interactions with people as a regular year. One of my first assignments in the Community Engagement in Planning Course, taught by Dr. Garcia Zambrana, required us to conduct intercept surveys to assist in the revision of the master plan for the Salt Lake City Public Lands Division.

The input from the surveys would be used to understand improvements needed in parks and public lands and how investments should be allocated for the next 10-20 years. To capture a diverse demographic, outreach involved conducting surveys in public spaces such as parks, trails, and pop-events that offered ice cream and snacks. In addition, we reached out to 236 local organizations to post flyers and share the survey link on their social media platforms. Six focus group engagements were also held with 52 individuals.

With the help of our community partners like west side community councils and the Road Home, we targeted underrepresented populations on the west side and people with lived experience in homelessness. Through collaborative efforts we were able to complete 635 intercept interviews, 3,733 online surveys, and post 215 times on social media using several platforms.

While I could understand the value of the intercept surveys, I felt hesitant and concerned to approach people as COVID-19 was occurring. To maintain safety, we made sure to wear our masks, carry hand sanitizer, provide QR codes, and keep a safe distance with individuals. To my surprise, I found that people were eager to talk about parks and how important they are to them.

Parks became a sanctuary place to many during the pandemic. It was one of the few places where people still felt they could gather safely, entertain their children, exercise, and find peace. A member from the Spanish focus group highlighted how parks provide an affordable getaway that may not be available otherwise, she stated, “If you need to have an activity or a moment of relaxation you can use the parks, you do not need to be taking trips if you do not have money and things like that.”

With 4,368 surveys completed, overwhelmingly it was revealed that no matter what the demographics were, parks in Salt Lake City are viewed as a fundamental aspect of community and well-being. However, the surveys also showed that the quality of parks and accessibility, vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. This demonstrated how important it is to engage diverse demographics in community engagement.

When it comes to serving the community, there is not a one-size fits all solution. A park user with three kids may have different expectations and experiences of a park than a fifteen-year-old involved in sports. Different demographics have different needs and solutions that should all be considered when serving a community.

The lessons learned through the surveys put into context what I learned in class and provided the opportunity to apply it in real life scenarios. The community engagement course has also allowed me to develop skills that I cannot solely learn through a book such as being able to approach strangers and engage in meaningful conversations.

Taking a certified Community Engagement Learning Course (CEL) would be beneficial to individuals who want to understand the challenges in their community, identify ways to get involved, and refine their professional and personal interests.

If you are interested in taking a community engagement course, Dr. Garcia Zambrana’s class, “Leadership in Community Engagement” which is open to undergraduates (CMP 4030) and graduate students (CMP 6030) will be offered in the Spring where students take the class with community residents to create a project on the west side that addresses a community issue. This is a hybrid course; the class will be held each Thursday from 5:30-8:30 pm in Zoom and in an SLC west side location.

If you are interested or know anyone that would like to enhance their leadership skills, I encourage you to follow the CMP website and the WLI website to learn more about the class and program. I am the TA for this course, so if you have questions please feel free to contact me at If you do not need the course credits, you may find this to be a good opportunity to make new friends.

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Last Updated: 4/13/21