I am Utrecht, Interdisciplinary Community Project (IMU)

14 December 2023

Educational project

I am Utrecht, Interdisciplinary Community Project (IMU)

I am Utrecht is a new CEL course that was created with the help of the CEL Support Fund to create long-term community engagement in the neighbourhoods of Utrecht. We managed to find a home for this course, design the curriculum, run a pilot course with an unexpectedly high number of students, and create a long-term partnership with Serve The City Utrecht, which provides the Maatschappelijke Diensttijd (MDT) trajectory and at the end an MDT certificate for students who participate in the activities.

Background and goals

Our experience in the 2 months Actie, Leren en Impact (ALI) course indicated that students would like to be involved in long-term MDT projects, but they lacked time and/or support from the university and were only able to engage in short-term volunteer work in their free time. Partners too would like to engage with students in long-term projects to make a real impact on the neighborhood. The current 10-week ALI course structure does not guarantee the continuous engagement of students. In the IMU project, we proposed a more continuous engagement from all parties and further development of a sense of ownership over societal issues in Utrecht.

This project aimed to:

  • Provide the framework of the IMU to develop meaningful and lasting collaboration, and reciprocal and interdisciplinary co-creation between the university, students, societal partners, and people in the neighborhood.
  • Create a continuous presence of university students at organizations involved in community and neighborhood development via a 6-month IMU.
  • Develop an understanding and passion towards community-engaged learning with an everlasting imprint in students’ CVs and future studies/employments.
  • Develop the skills of dealing with complex, real-life problems that prepare them for challenges they will face in their future employment.

Project description

When Who What Result
Jan to Mar 2022 Anna and Danielle Finding a home

Creating a network and institutional support by consulting with department heads and gaining their commitment.

The Department of Education took ownership of this course and provided a course code. The course ran for the first time in the year 2022/23.
Apr 2022 to Sep 2022


Anna and Danielle Development:

Create an interdisciplinary team

Find supervisors

Find more societal partners

Deepening network

Create action learning sets: talk to other colleagues/partners/students to include learnings from their experiences

Preparation meetings

Three teachers with different educational background from the Department of Education were assigned to this course.

We started to collaborate with Serve the City.

We started to develop the course.

We found other partners for the student projects (Dock, Nieuwe Jutter, Stichting Move)

September 2022 to July 2023


5 Supervisors from different disciplines Execution of pilot


We finished course development and the new pilot course started with a record number of students (25 instead of the envisaged 5)

Students filled out an anonymous evaluation sheet at the end of the pilot.

July 2023 to August 2023


Supervisors with Anna and Danielle Reflection:

Incorporate the learning from this pilot to the long running course.

We had two evaluation meetings in the presence of teachers and representatives of Serve the City.

(See below further elaboration of the results and lessons learned)

Example of a student project

The target population of the project was people with low literacy. Students worked together with a partner in Sterrenzicht. Students in the project first had to understand how many people in this neighborhood have this problem. They went around the neighborhood with a coffee-chat car and in exchange for a talk, people were offered a coffee and biscuit. They discovered that the issue runs in the families.

They came up with a treasure hunt activity in the neighborhood. The goal was to give a nice experience about letters and words to the participants. Participants had to follow arrows and walk from one area in the neighborhood to the next. On the path, they found numbers with puzzles. The puzzle always had to do something with words and letters. Students put up signs in the neighborhood to advertise the event: kids, mums, dads, and grandparents were also invited to the event. The kids got an ice cream at the local snackbar, which was not planned, but it happened spontaneously. In the end, 15 kids and their parents participated in the event.

The partner appreciated that after this treasure hunt new people started to join the community activities in the community center. The students together with the partner also applied for further funds after the course. They were invited to organize similar treasure hunts in two other neighborhoods in Utrecht. Stichting Lezen en Schrijven has become a long-term partner, who continues organizing the treasure hunt in different neighborhoods.


It was an unexpected and nice outcome of a conversation with Jeroen Jansen, who agreed to provide a course code for this initiative. Therefore, from this project, we managed to create an actual course owned by the Department of Education. The pilot was designed for 5 students, but in the end 25 registered and 17 fully completed the course and received an MDT certificate. For next year the course will accommodate a max. of 50 students.

We closely collaborated with Serve The City Utrecht, which provides the MDT trajectory for students. This was a special relationship as they had also contact moments with the students and we had to define our different roles in this collaboration.

The students worked on projects with societal partners (Dock, Buurthuis Nieuwe Jutter, Serve the City Utrecht, Verschilmakers, Stichting Move). They developed skills to deal with complex societal problems. They learned to feel ownership of societal projects in the neighbourhoods of Utrecht.

Reflections and lessons learned

The collaboration went very well and was a positive experience overall. It is something that both, teachers and Serve the City colleagues would like to continue in the long run. However, after the first lesson, we realized that there were lots of overlaps in our roles and we had to work actively to create more synergies in our collaboration. The partner was flexible and we met regularly outside the planned contact moments to deal with the unexpected issues. Ironing out all the details of the collaboration is still an ongoing work whilst we are preparing for the next academic year.

For the pilot, teachers did not receive too many contact hours (only 10×3 hours), which was a real challenge, because with the planned contact moments, there was not enough time to deepen into the methodologies and literature and we had to share these contact moments with the MDT provider, Serve the City. For next years, we managed to secure more contact hours, so we can spend more time on literature, methodologies, and issues of sustainability. We are planning now 18 contact moments:

6 MDT (intake, meetups in mixed teams, mid-evaluation, workshop, end evaluation) in which the primary role is for Serve the City to facilitate the lessons, 6 UU input in which UU teachers work together with students on the literature, choose the correct methodology, and discuss how positive impact and sustainability are achieved in the student projects, 6 contact moments with UU/Serve the City supervision present.

We offered too much freedom to students to choose their preferred methodology. In the end, they had too many options and found it difficult to choose. We will change this next year.
For the pilot, we as teachers did not have an even number of hours. This was very difficult in practice, as one colleague was always in catch-up mode. We will change this next year. 

Take home message

It brings an exciting positive change in the work you do, as a teacher. It is great to see students feeling empowered and proud of the achievements that they obtained outside the university, in the real world. It is beautiful to witness how they develop their community network and develop as professionals and as human beings becoming more sensitive towards societal issues in their immediate environment.

Be prepared for the unknown and plan more time for unexpected issues. Have regular meetings with partners to iron out all the details of the collaboration. Listen to student voices and when you need to change something, be flexible enough and accept that change is ongoing.


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