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Prefiguring Sustainability through Participatory Action Research Experiences for Undergraduates: Reflections and Recommendations for Student Development


PAR-based UREs are undergraduate research experiences (UREs)—built into university-community partnerships—that apply principles of participatory action research (PAR) towards addressing community-defined challenges. In this paper, we advance PAR-based UREs as an action-oriented framework through which higher education institutions can simultaneously enact and advance the United Nations sustainable development agenda, while cultivating student development. We draw upon interdisciplinary scholarship on sustainable development and PAR, as well as empirical findings from a pilot program, to accomplish dual goals. First, through the lens of six Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) clusters, we explore the synergies between undergraduate PAR engagement and sustainable development, explaining how PAR-based UREs can prefigure and facilitate SDG achievement by promoting cross-sector collaboration and supporting diverse stakeholder engagement through community-driven research and action. Second, within each SDG cluster, we offer complementary reflections and recommendations around the design and implementation of PAR-based UREs towards advancing students’ skills and abilities as: (1) Community Collaborators (and Learners); (2) Community-Engaged Researchers; (3) (Interdisciplinary) Scholars; (4) Agents of Change; (5) (Sustainable) Co-Innovators; and (6) Institutional Representatives. Finally, we discuss the critical role of higher education institutions in minimizing structural barriers to PAR-based URE implementation, given their prefigurative and practical potential for both SDG achievement and student development.

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