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Service, Learning & Community Building: A Q&A About Student Civic Engagement

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Students and staff volunteering at the Emergency Food Network for the Parkland Immersion Alternative Spring Break.
May 24, 2016

Preparing graduates for their public lives as citizens, members of communities, and professionals in society has historically been a responsibility of higher education. And at PLU civic engagement and service to one’s community is a long-held ideal and practice.

In 1990, Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, called for a “new American college” that would renew the tradition of higher education service to society that he associated with the colonial liberal arts college and the land grand university system founded during the Civil War. He said, “I am convinced that the time has come for a new generation of creative colleges that color outside the lines—institutions that define distinctive missions based on a vision other than the two traditional symbols of excellence in higher education, the research university and the liberal arts college.” He went on to say that these “integrative institutions” are ones that intentionally draw connections across the disciplines, between general education and the major, between faculty and students, between the classroom and campus life, between traditional education and life long learning, between the campus and the larger world.

Recently, I invited faculty and staff leaders to share ideas and ask questions about how we might accelerate our efforts to purposely integrate the liberal arts, professional studies and civic engagement, and how we might continue to, in the words of Dr. Bill Foege ’57, “seek the best minds among those who care about their communities.”

Can we make it an expectation that Lutes vote? Can we provide resources that assist in boosting commitment to voter registration and voting at key points during the year?

There are a few great examples on campus happening right now. For instance, a group of business students in Dr. Mark Mulder’s marketing class say they are concerned about lagging voter turnout that has historically kept local school bond measures from passing. They want to change that ahead of November’s general election, during which voters will decide on Franklin Pierce School District’s $157 million bond that would replace five elementary schools and include several other projects. This group of students is not only mobilizing their fellow classmates to vote, but they also are working with various ethnic communities, varying age groups, and renters and homeowners in the area to test different campaign narratives.

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Do all students have to be other-directed at the time of matriculation?

I imagine that prospective students would find a culture that prizes community-mindedness to be attractive—whether they are now that way or just feel such an environment would be attractive. It’s comparable to our emphasis on global education: about half of our students don’t study abroad, but all students benefit from a culture that prizes an international mindset. So, no, I wouldn’t expect that we mandate evidence of other-directedness, but I do think we could develop more ways to show that we value it. For years, we have evaluated applicants not just on their academic abilities but also on their demonstrated engagement in activities that show an inclination to service and leadership. So, we’ve been recruiting other-directed students for years; the goal now is to make sure that we are not only attracting the right students, but also creating the kind of environment in which these students will thrive.

A few examples: In PLU’s Sociology department, Sociology of Education students are working with Keithley Middle School teachers and students to run focus groups looking at high truancy rates and what some of the home and school factors are that keep kids from attending school. Just recently, the class presented their findings and recommendations to Keithley and Franklin Pierce School District administrators. Dr. Teresa Ciabattari’s Sociology Research Methods students are learning about data collection and analysis by conducting interviews with Food Bank clients at Trinity Lutheran Church. Trinity was interested in learning how they could better support clients with their health and nutrition needs, so the study is looking at access to health care and dental care and learning about what the barriers are to utilizing the Washington State plan, which includes free dental care. Findings are being presented this month to Molina Health, Lindquist Dental and other community partners.

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How can we stay diverse if we are looking for a particular type of student?

We’re making good progress on the diversity of our student body: for the incoming Fall ‘16 class, 34% are students of color, 42% are first generation students, and 31% are Pell Grant-eligible students. While these numbers have grown nicely over the past few years, we need to do more—starting with the diversity of our faculty, staff and administrators. People of color, people from immigrant communities, and people of lower socio-economic status often show just as much interest in others and their communities as white, domestic-born, and wealthier people. In fact, research shows that lower socio-economic people routinely give a higher percentage of their income to charity than others higher on the income scale. So I fully expect that an emphasis on “other-directedness” will enhance our efforts to diversify the PLU community. As I travel around campus, I am constantly reminded that our students of color and first gen students are often the most invested in the community-oriented nature of PLU.

The programs that we offer to the surrounding community are good avenues to introduce PLU to diverse communities. Ashley Carrasco ’17, works with other PLU students and the Hispanic Studies department to offer an adult English Language Learner program that meets two evenings per week on campus. And English and Philosophy faculty work with Pierce County Library and Humanities Washington to offer the Primetime Reading Program for elementary students and their families at local schools. Families come to the library once a week, share a meal, read and analyze children’s books, and have discussions about how to read critically.

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We need to find ways to get commuter students more involved in civic engagement.

Excellent suggestion. There’s good energy right now around this very topic in ASPLU and in Student Life generally. Having resources that allow commuter students to spend more time on campus and get more engaged in projects outside the classroom is an important first step. The Commuter Lounges, meal plans for commuters, more programming uniquely designed for these students, and experiments in trying to get more commuters to live on campus are good steps in the right direction.

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What if we tag courses in Banner that have a civic engagement component and require all students to take at least one course before graduating?

I like suggestions like these and am in favor of figuring out ways to measure achievement of the integration of civic engagement into our overall curriculum.

I think we can all learn from the example of the School of Nursing where hands-on experience is integrated into almost every course. Students in our Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) program, for instance, are helping meet the healthcare needs of marginalized populations including new immigrants, low-income elderly, and people struggling with addiction. Working in collaboration with Community Health Care and the Medical Reserve Corps, FNP students and faculty volunteer for the wound clinic that offers free services to anyone seeking medical care for a wound due to injection drug use. And with the Sumner Senior Center, Bonney Lake Senior Center and Mercy Housing, PLU faculty and students conduct cardiovascular and cholesterol screenings, fall risk assessments and skin cancer screenings.

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Successful civic engagement requires deeply held convictions, authenticity, risk-taking, integrity, courage in the face of adversity, and civility.  Despite the bad news that often clutters our television screens or fills social media feeds, groups of dedicated individuals can still make a difference.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote: “To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people, and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics, and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better—whether by a healthy child, or a redeemed social condition—to know even one life has breathed easier, because you have lived.  This is to have succeeded.”

And this is why civic engagement remains as relevant as ever.

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