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Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the October/November edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Effective civic engagement requires a systemic approach—one that empowers students to voice their thoughts and opinions and emerge as leaders within their local communities.
Public colleges and universities have a history of fostering civic engagement through service learning opportunities, including internships and policy institutes. Starting next year, Massachusetts will become one of a handful of states to include civic engagement in its system-wide measurement of student performance.
“We are at a moment in history when public discouragement with the democratic process appears to be at an all-time high,” said Charles Desmond, chair of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, following the board’s decision this past spring to track civic education and engagement across the state’s 29 public higher education institutions.
“Our colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to renew our civic vitality and provide meaningful opportunities for students to engage fully and enthusiastically as citizens. I believe this is the most important work that we can do in higher education.”
When the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement released “A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future,” it challenged our nation’s two-year career and technical institutions to put civic learning in the hands of students.
Democracy at work
At Mount Wachusett Community College (MWCC) in Massachusetts, civic engagement is part of the educational mission. More than 80 percent of MWCC students stay in the region after graduation; other community colleges report similar data. It is essential that these students, and their peers who move elsewhere, understand how to initiate change when needed—and more important, why they should be engaged in their communities.
MWCC administrators report that students are interested in creating positive civic change but aren’t always certain how to begin. As the college launches its second “Decade of Civic Engagement,” educators are focused on engaging students inside and outside the classroom. This is just the beginning.
Prior to 9/11, MWCC President Daniel Asquino noticed a dearth of young people serving on community boards and organizations; he set out to change that. Asquino commissioned a team of faculty, staff, and community leaders that developed a plan to integrate civic engagement into the broader college culture.
Asquino and his committee declared “A Decade of Civic Engagement,” in which service learning became a part of course objectives, and grants were sought for important community-based programs. The plan defined civic engagement and service learning for MWCC and laid a foundation for the work that followed.
Today, after much strategic planning, MWCC has a newly endowed Center for Civic Learning and Community Engagement. The center provides assessment, analysis, and support, and serves as a catalyst for new initiatives, each of which is aligned with the college’s strategic plan. A $2-million endowment from an anonymous donor in late 2011 ensures that MWCC students will be able to pursue civic learning “in perpetuity.”
The center annually supports the work of nearly 50 full-time and adjunct faculty members, more than 400 students, and more than 380 community organizations. Additional civic engagement programming at the college, including grant-funded programming, reaches more than 10,000 individuals in the region each year. The center also houses the college’s internship, career placement, and job readiness programs and directly aligns civic education with workforce training and job placement efforts.
MWCC has been consistently tracking service-learning outcomes since 2008, and data shows it has had a marked effect on student retention, course completion, and levels of preparation for continued study or workforce entry post-graduation.
Beyond the college
Two of the center’s programs, United Way Youth Venture and AmeriCorps Job Ready, break the traditional mold of civic engagement programming because their primary constituents are not MWCC students. In United Way Youth Venture, a program designed and managed by MWCC, more than 1,500 middle and high school youth work with program staff to conceptualize, design and implement their own entrepreneurial clubs and organizations. In partnership with the United Way of North Central Massachusetts and Ashoka’s Youth Venture, this program, now in its 10th year, serves as a national model of civic engagement.
Available to young people ages 12 to 20, projects range from after-school arts programs for elementary students to a community skate park to educational activities for young adults. Graduation rates in two of the participating high schools are 12 to 14 percent higher than rates at schools where students do not participate in the program.
A second program, AmeriCorps Job Ready, places 15 full-time AmeriCorps members throughout the community—at middle schools, high schools, community organizations, MWCC and Fitchburg State University—to address job readiness and workforce preparation. More than 10,000 area residents have benefited from this program, now in its third year. More than 85 percent of participants say they leave the program better prepared for work.
Benchmarks of engagement
MWCC publicly recognizes students for their contributions to the community at commencement and at a year-end celebration. In seven years, MWCC estimates that students have provided more than 200,000 hours of public service, valued at more than $4.3 million.
This year, for the first time, MWCC presented the U.S. President’s Volunteer Service Award to students who accumulated more than 100 hours of service during the academic year. More than 20 students received the honor, an indication that more community college students value service and civic engagement as a fundamental part of their education.
The college is leading efforts to integrate civic engagement learning into everyday practice at community colleges in a measurable and articulated way that will allow students to demonstrate growth.
“One of my favorite success stories involves a nursing student who chose to do her service learning at a local agency that deals with community health, emergency preparedness and disaster relief,” said MWCC Associate Professor of Nursing Amy Kendrick. “This student put in hours well above and beyond her course requirement and worked to prepare a training manual for new volunteers. After graduation, she continued to work with this agency and even traveled to a national conference on disaster preparedness. She has been out of school for a few years now, working as an RN, and still continues to volunteer her time with the agency. This is my hope for all students doing service learning—that they find something they are passionate about, that will not only be a useful teaching tool for them but something they can incorporate into their lives.”
Forhan is director of experiential learning opportunities and civic engagement at Mount Wachusett Community College (Massachusetts).
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges