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These Kids Are More than Alright: Student Civic Seminar at Towson University

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

Across the country, Don Harward, former president of Bates College, hosted a series of seminars to discuss the civic mission of higher education. These seminars sought to uncover answers to such questions as what is the civic mission of colleges and universities? Is this mission understood and valued by students, faculty and staff? What needs to happen to actualize this mission?

College Unbound students skyped in for a conversation with seminar participants.

We invited a group of student leaders to participate in this important discussion. The Civic Seminar hosted by Towson was the only one in the country focused entirely on the student perspective. On Friday, April 29, I had the pleasure of spending five hours deep in conversation with the 13 selected students from the following ADP universities: Towson University,  University Maryland Baltimore County, and the University of Maryland.

We started the day with an icebreaker that helped the students explore their civic leadership styles. After that, we had a fascinating video conversation with students from College Unbound in Providence using Skype. During this conversation, ADP students talked with the College Unbound students about how their universities were supporting and/or hindering their civic development. Following this conversation, we spent a few hours digging deeply into a conversation about higher education’s role in preserving and improving democracy in the US and abroad.

Students share their recommendations for the higher education civic engagement movement.

I was simply astonished by the brilliance of these students. In five hours they outlined some of the major lessons it has taken the American Democracy Project nine years to learn (the importance of institutional intentionality, top-down/bottom-up approaches to institutionalization, student leadership, faculty rewards and incentives for civic work, etc.).  They also discussed the following predetermined discussion topics:

  1. What are the roles that higher education must play in building a just democracy, one that both respects differences and contributes to a common cause?
  2. How might higher education leaders who are not students meaningfully involve students in civic engagement work?
  3. How does increasing diversity, on campus and in the larger society, relate to the dimensions of the civic?
  4. Who does/can organize civic action and how?
  5. What do you see as the failings and/or opportunities in institutions to focus on civic engagement?

A variety of student recommendations for advancing and deepening the civic engagement movement in higher education came out of Friday’s Civic Seminar. One of the students declared that, “A university’s job is to show students the synthesis between civic work and professional work.” Below you will find a list of the recommendations created by the students of the Civic Seminar.

  • Get to know your students, what are their demographics, what are the issues that your students face or are interested, and gear the programming toward issues that are important to them
  • Provide opportunities for students to engage with each other: give them incentives to go off campus and do public work together
  • Faculty and administrators should model the engagement they wish to see in their students
  • The university should also be a model of the just, democratic society it is encouraging students to create
  • Important to promote opportunities for engagement on campus – not all students are aware of opportunities to get involved
  • Host discussions about the many spectrums of civic engagement, some students are engaged but don’t even know they are
  • We know you have succeeded in instilling the civic mission in higher ed when  students/graduates have a passion and serving with that passion, in some way attempting positive change
  • Help students see themselves as civic agents!
  • Create personal relationships on campus that help institutionalize civic engagement
  • Create open forums for healthy discussion
  • You will know you are successful when what you built is self-sustaining

I will create a final report that includes all Seminar recommendations. When I am finished with the report, I will share it on the ADP Blog. The final conclusion that the students came to was that they believe higher education has a strong role to play in the maintenance and improvement of American democracy. I couldn’t agree more.

A special shout out to Darcy Accardi of Towson University for organizing the day’s events! 

These kids are definitely alright!

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I’m approaching this article through the lens of how federal, state, and local government agencies foster civic engagement, and I see that many of the same lessons for educational institutions are applicable for government too. Well done.


    June 10, 2011

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