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What about Students?

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

Yesterday I had a wonderful phone conversation with Martin Carcasson and Jack Becker of Colorado State University. Martin is a Communications Studies professor and Jack is one of his students. Jack is planning a student civics conference in Oxford, Ohio, March 16-19, 2011 (details below), and we spent a lot of time talking about this event. The theme of the conference is “The Citizens’ Toolbox: What’s in Yours?” and it will be a follow up to last year’s “Connect the Dots” student conference. I was inspired to hear Jack talk about his work with planning the conference. It was clear to me that Jack had ample opportunities throughout his undergraduate experience to take leadership roles in civic engagement projects. Because of these experiences, Jack is able to use the skills he’s gained to plan this national student conference on civic engagement. For me, he is a perfect example of what a student can do when they have acquired a robust set of civic and professional skills. And he has these civic skills in his tool box because faculty members like Martin believe in the power and importance of working with students.

I have spent the last four years as ADP Manager pushing for increased student involvement in our programs. It is my belief that without student involvement, we will not be successful. It has to be a top-down, bottom-up movement if it’s going to work. Administrators are very important. They are key to institutionalizing civic engagement programming, they offer strategic vision, and they hold the purse strings. It’s important to get faculty to buy into civic education because they are the ones who are teaching students and, more importantly, are often the sources of inspiration for students. But it’s equally important to get students involved because they have the energy, passion, motivation, and ideas that we need in order to design programs that will appeal to and shape students.

Too often, I attend events in the civic engagement world that are mainly attended by people in senior positions and I always ask myself, “Where are the students?” We all sit around and talk about students in a way that makes them seem theoretical to our work, and yet we don’t engage them. I have become a nuisance at these types of events because I now ask, “Where are the students? You want to do important civic engagement work that will affect students, but you’re not inviting their participation in meetings like this.” If we really want to change higher education, if we really want to design programs that will inspire and engage students, if we really want to do substantive, community-based work that has long-lasting impacts, we must partner with our students in equitable and meaningful ways.

Thankfully, I am not alone in my belief that student leadership and collaboration is central to the success of the American Democracy Project. My shared passion for student involvement has been evidenced by the increasing number of students that are working with faculty members in ADP chapters all over the country. It is also evidenced by the number of students that are attending our various events. Last week, 25 students attended the Civic Agency Institute. At last year’s ADP National Meeting, 75 of our 370 participants were students. This year, I anticipate even more students will be in Orlando for our National Meeting. Students are now leading sessions at our Institutes and Conferences, providing valuable ideas and input for faculty members about civic engagement programming, and they are rolling up their sleeves and working in partnership with faculty members, staff, and administrators to do the difficult work of institutionalizing civic engagement on campus.

For those of you who already work with students in your civic engagement projects, kudos! As many in my generation would say, “you know what’s up!” For those of you who don’t yet, I encourage you to find passionate students on campus to work with (trust me, this will not be hard!). Give them responsibility. Ask for their input. Seek their expertise and knowledge when developing programs/events/community-university partnerships, etc. Not only will you be giving them an opportunity to develop their civic and leadership skills, but you will be astounded by how much richer your civic engagement work will be because of your students.

Check out Jack’s upcoming student conference, “The Citizens Toolbox: What’s in Yours?” It will take place in Oxford, Ohio, March 16-19, 2011. For more information about this exciting student conference, please visit this website.

Question: How have you collaborated with students on your campus to do civic engagement work? And, students, how have you worked with faculty members?

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