Being good neighbors

A Salt Lake Community College student involved in Student Leaders in Civic Engagement organized an Earth Day Festival. (Photo: SLCC)

Community colleges traditionally have provided a combination of liberal arts education and/or career training, depending on a student’s goals and outlook.

But increasingly, two-year colleges are adding a third leg to their stools aimed at building more socially aware citizens through civic engagement programs that combine elements of community service and getting involved in the democratic process with classroom reflection that distills and solidifies the lessons learned.

Colleges cite similar reasons why they consider civic engagement programs important. At Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City, the Thayne Center for Service & Learning was founded in 1994 out of a belief that higher educational institutions had an obligation to create an actively engaged citizenry, says Sean Crossland, director of the center.

“I see it as a great necessity, and an obligation of higher ed, to not just churn out the next round of the workforce but to create an engaged citizenry that can make informed decisions and engage in democracy,” he says.

To that end, Salt Lake has inserted community as one of the values listed in its strategic plan and cited increasing the culture of community engagement as one of five strategies in a campus-wide civic action plan. Employees of the college receive 24 hours of paid leave to do service in the community, Crossland says.

“That can look however they want,” he says. “Their supervisors are not able to discriminate based on where they serve. It’s meant to be their opportunity to get involved in the community in a way they care about. That’s a commitment from the institution that we do believe we are very much part of our community.”

The Center for Service & Learning has become much more a part of the typical student’s experience at Salt Lake, and few people resist that concept anymore, Crossland says.

“It no longer feels like it’s about the challenge of legitimizing our work, it’s the challenge of operationalizing it and seeing where it fits,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot of pushback against this work.”

Helping with knowledge retention

Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York, formalized its Center for Service Learning in 2010 partly due to State University of New York requirements that all colleges do applied learning but also out of a belief that students learn better by doing, says Evangeline Manjares, dean of academic and student services.

Editor’s note: This excerpt comes from the current issue of the award-winning Community College Journal, which is published bimonthly by the American Association of Community Colleges.

“We believe that students will remember what they do in service learning, instead of thinking about what the lecture was in the classroom,” she says. “We also believe it helps with our retention, and it improves their graduation and employment outcomes. It can make our academics more relevant by connecting students with their work, and integrating work experience with the curriculum.”

Although not all faculty and students are on board, increasing numbers of them realize that civic engagement and service learning not only broadens opportunities for students but also improve community relationships, Manjares says. “Everyone is too involved with looking at our cell phones,” she says. “It’s time to maybe share some of their cell phone time with the community.”

Understanding roles in society

Duane Oakes, faculty director at the Center for Community & Civic Engagement at Mesa Community College in Arizona, believes the civic engagement work at his campus, which dates to the early 1990s, is probably the most important function the college serves.

“It does no good to educate a doctor, lawyer, teacher, whatever it is, if those individuals don’t understand their role in society,” he says. “There’s nothing more important I can do than to graduate a student who’s a better citizen. We think our mission is to prepare a workforce, but they already know they have to get jobs. We also want to give them the skills, knowledge and abilities to be better citizens, so they can make a difference in the communities where they live and work.”

Q&A with Ralph Nader: The long-time activist talks about the need for civic engagement on community college campuses and how his older brother used those principles to start a Connecticut community college.

Students always tell Oakes, who is also campus coordinator for a national umbrella group called The Democracy Commitment, that they like to learn by doing, yet too many academic programs don’t take that into account and focus solely on more traditional lecture environments.

“We need to change the way we teach, to make the things we teach relevant and alive,” he says. “They walk out of classes I’ve taught, and they’re engaged in things they know can make a difference.”

Besides, service learning can help further career exploration, Oakes says, which is why Mesa has placed civic engagement alongside communication, critical thinking and cultural engagement as its four key student learning outcomes.

“It’s about understanding our society, and improving the quality of life through political and nonpolitical means,” he says. “We’re putting the ‘community’ back into community college.”

Read the full article in the current issue of CCJournal.

About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.