Communiversity Is the Community’s University

Janet Schaaf

Communiversity: A shared experience between community and student.

That’s how Rick Mareske, UMKC’s Communiversity program coordinator, defines it. He points out that this philosophy also fits right into UMKC’s Strategic Plan.

“I’m excited about this,” Mareske said. “The fact that we actually have words that describe what we’re doing: urban engagement and community involvement.”

The program also serves a diverse population with equally diverse topic offerings. These three things, urban engagement, community involvement and diversity, fit right into two of the university’s six strategic planning goals including goal three, advance urban engagement,  and goal five, embrace diversity .

Communiversity was founded in 1970 and, according to Communiversity Fast Facts found on UMKC’s website, remains the largest all-volunteer adult education program in the country to date. A highlight of the program for UMKC students is that they are able to attend classes at no charge aside from materials fees. Fees for other community members are nominal.

Community members make up the majority of students taking Communiversity classes, but Mareske’s knowledge of the history behind the beginnings of free universities in the 1960s validates his interest in seeing more UMKC students take advantage of the free classes. Early free university classes through colleges like University of California – Berkeley in the late 1960s were started by students who realized they did not have rights over their own education.

“The students, feeling empowered and feeling like they could do anything, 1,000 of them took over the administration building at Berkeley for a month and basically occupied the building,” Mareske said.” During this time, the first free university was born. Out of that, there were about 200 free universities that started up immediately all over the country. The ideals were varied. Some were more anarchistic, and some were socialist, where some offered classes more like we do now, but more political in general.”

Communiversity’s volunteer class leaders are called conveners instead of teachers because of the shared experience philosophy of the program. A convener must have an interest in imparting experience and knowledge, but classes are meant to be a learning experience for teacher and student alike. Mareske related his own experience of convening a class on the Chinese strategy game Go and having the president of the Kansas City Go Association as a student. Mareske admitted that the student ended up teaching the class more than he did.

A wide variety of classes are offered through the Communiversity program. Some of the more popular classes recently have been wine tasting, cooking and storytelling. Mareske, who has been with Communiversity since 1978, says figure drawing is one class that has been offered longer than he has been with the program.

“Anything that’s legal and not going to hurt somebody, we can do,” Mareske said.

Summer classes are winding down, but staff members are working on the fall schedule now and classes will begin in September.

Communiversity’s Fall 2013 Wholistic Health Fair will be 11 a.m. – 6 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 10, in the Student Union Multipurpose Room 401.