Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy

NOTICE: This program has been transferred to the UI Office of Community Engagement (05/2021).


The Obermann Graduate Institute is a 3 1/2-day interdisciplinary institute in which UI graduate students from across campus and at any point in their graduate studies explore how public engagement can enhance teaching, research, and creative work.

By the end of the Institute, participants will be familiar with the history of public engagement, current trends, and be able to both differentiate between and apply various modes of engagement to teaching and research projects.

Graduates of the program tell us that the Institute helped them to develop a cohort of like-minded colleagues and mentors while at the University of Iowa. Many have reported that the experience and familiarity with public engagement helped them to secure job interviews, some of which translated into positions that include strong engagement components. Selected students are named Obermann Graduate Fellows and earn a $400 stipend at the end of the Institute. 


Anna Swanson, former Obermann Senior Fellow and Cinematic Arts MFA, created the short documentary film below, Taking It to the Streets: 10 Years of the Obermann Graduate Institute. The film follows the 2016 Graduate Institute and checks in with co-directors and alumni about the power and value of the experience.


Recent Alumni 

Meet some of our recent alumni and read about their work by clicking on their names.

Heather Wacha is currently a Mellon-funded CLIR-DFL Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She created Meet the Manuscript, a workshop that translates and digitizes a document from UI Special Collections and engages high school classes.

—Now an assistant professor of English at Southern Virginia University, James Lambert developed a program to teach Shakespeare to high school students in Kuwait.

—As a Lown Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, Tala Al-rousan created a program working with Syrian refugees in Jordan to co-create better public health protocol for them. 

—As a faculty member in Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University, Ted Gutsche has developed multiple community-based projects, including a partnership between his undergraduates and high school students in which they participate in measuring the rising water table and create ways to share this information and its consequences with the public.

Erica Damman is interested in games and play as a way to discuss difficult topics. She is completing an Interdisciplinary PhD in Environmental Humanities, an emerging field that seeks to capture relationships between environmental philosophy, cultural geography, cultural anthropology, ecocriticism, environmental history, and political ecology.

—As a graduate research assistant in the Iowa Women's Archives, Jeannette Gabriel has built the collection and presence of the Jewish Women in Iowa Project.

Learn More: — A site collecting stories of our alumni's work

View a list of all Graduate Institute fellows and co-directors since 2007


UI graduate students in all fields, all colleges, and at all stages of their studies are eligible. Students must be in good academic standing and have the approval of their Graduate Director.

Required Items

  • An academic CV: This should be no longer than 2 pages and should include a) your projected date of graduation and your final degree; b) a list of academic accomplishments, including presentations, publications, exhibits, and teaching assignments, and c) your current contact information (mailing address, phone, and e-mail), academic department, and advisor’s name. Send your CV and responses to the four questions below as a SINGLE PDF to Be sure your name and e-mail address appear at the top of the first page.
  • Responses to the four questions below: Your responses should be no longer than 200 words per question. Send your responses and CV as a single PDF to Be sure that your name and address are at the top of the page.
  • A confidential one-page letter of support from your faculty advisor: Provide a confidential one-page letter of support from your faculty advisor. This should address: a) your standing in your graduate program, b) the value of the Graduate Institute to your present and future teaching, research, and career c) your potential for collaborative, publicly engaged teaching, scholarship, or other forms of work. [For a definition of public scholarship, see below.] Your faculty advisor should email this letter directly to
  • An optional confidential letter that addresses your abilities or potential abilities to work as partner with a community organization or work experience with public engagement: This letter might come from a faculty member, a mentor, or a supervisor in a volunteer position. It can address any or all of the following: a) your potential to bring this project to fruition, and b) your ability to work with a community partner, and c) the viability of your proposed project. Please have this letter e-mailed directly to
  • An email from the applicant’s Director of Graduate Studies: In order to ensure that the DGS of your department is aware of your participation, we require an email from the Director of Graduate Studies from your home department stating the following: “NAME OF APPLICANT is in good standing in our department. If he/she/they is accepted, I support his/her/their participation in the Obermann Graduate Institute in January 2018.” This statement—no more and no less—should be e-mailed by your DGS to

Additional Notes

Four Questions: (Please respond in no more than 200 words per question.)

  1. EXPERIENCE: What is your past involvement as a student, teacher, organizer, and/or scholar with publicly engaged scholarship, volunteering, service learning, or community activism? (See one possible definition below.) What skills have you built in these areas?
  2. CURRENT VISION: Describe a project that you would like to develop further that involves community engagement and teaching, organizing, or scholarship. This project can be in any stage—from the spark of an idea to a program that is already in place and to which you would like to build. The Institute will help you to move the project further, but we would like to hear what excites you and where you can imagine applying the methods of the Institute.
  3. PERSPECTIVE: How does your background and life experiences relate to your interests in publicly engaged scholarship?
  4. PATH FORWARD: Explain how participation in the Obermann Graduate Institute will benefit you in your research, teaching, and/or future career aspirations, as well as how it will benefit the University of Iowa and/or a scholarly community (or other community) of which you are a member.

Note: It may prove useful to you and those writing letters on your behalf to consider this three-part definition of public scholarship from Imagining America, a coalition organization to which the Obermann Center actively belongs:

  • Public scholarship is scholarly or creative work integral to a faculty member’s academic area. It is jointly planned, carried out, and reflected on by co-equal university and community partners. And it yields one or more public good products. 
  • Subject to these three conditions, public scholarship may encompass artistic, design, historical, and critical work that contributes to public discourse and the formation of robust rubrics. It may also include disciplinary or interdisciplinary efforts to advance public engagement in higher education itself and reflection and research on the import of such efforts.
  • Public good products may take diverse and plural forms, including but not limited to peer-reviewed individual or co-authored publications; other forms of writing and publication; presentations at academic and non-academic conferences and meetings; oral histories or ethnographies; interviews with or reflections by participants; program development; performances, exhibitions, installations, murals, or festivals; new K-16 curriculum, site designs or plans for "cultural corridors," and other place-making work; and policy recommendations.