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An Interview with Cecilia Orphan: Reflections on 5 Years with ADP

Cecilia Orphan’s last official day as National Manager of The American Democracy Project was last Friday, July 29, 2011. As Cecilia heads off to pursue her PhD in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, I asked her to reflect on her five years leading ADP. In this interview, Cecilia demonstrates the insightfulness and passion for the work of civic engagement that we’ve all come to know and love. ADP is thankful to Cecilia for her tireless leadership and wishes her all the best at UPenn!

Cecilia Orphan

Cecilia M. Orphan is a doctoral student in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, Ms. Orphan studies the role of higher education in American democracy. Prior to coming to Penn, Ms. Orphan directed the American Democracy Project (ADP), a multi-campus initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).  The 230 universities involved with ADP focus on higher education’s role in educating informed, engaged citizens for our democracy. As part of her work with ADP, she directed the Civic Engagement in Action (CEIA) Series. The CEIA Series consists of seven national initiatives that serve as laboratories for experimentation with curricular and co-curricular programming that will further institutionalize civic engagement on AASCU campuses. In addition to directing ADP, Ms. Orphan also served as the editor of the Academic Leadership and Change Digest series, a collection of queries about current institutional practices that are used by AASCU provosts as they consider new approaches to campus issues. Ms. Orphan serves on the board of directors for The Democracy Imperative and the steering committee of the American Commonwealth Project. Ms. Orphan was awarded the John Saltmarsh Award for Emerging Leaders in Civic Engagement and is currently a PAGE Fellow with Imagining America. Ms. Orphan holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Portland State University. As an undergraduate, Ms. Orphan co-founded the PSU Volunteer Resource Center and was awarded the President’s Award for Outstanding Community Engagement two years in a row.

Cecilia in Madrid

Jen Domagal-Goldman (JDG):  Share with us what you’ve learned during your time working with the American Democracy Project.

Cecilia M. Orphan (CMO):  We have learned so much about how to deepen and institutionalize civic engagement in higher education during the last five years. Below are some of the most important lessons that I will take with me into my graduate program.

Student Leadership

When ADP began, we worked primarily with provosts and faculty members. Through the launch of the eCitizenship initiative, we learned that for many students, the ADP felt “top down,” and like something, “administrators dreamed up while playing golf and slapping themselves on the back” (quotes from a focus group held at Wayne State University). We now include students in the implementation of the initiative, and we have learned to include them in a non-hierarchical and collaborative way.  We now have a student on the ADP Implementation Committee. The student has offered wonderful insights into what works well in getting undergraduates engaged. We also invite students to attend all of our events and make presentations to attendees. Their presence and passion has profoundly enhanced the work of ADP.

National Partners

National partners are critical and enrich our programs and initiatives by providing content and strategies we would otherwise lack. We would not be able to do all that we do if it weren’t for our partners.

Making the Work Relational

Many of our campus coordinators are at the early stages of their career. This means that they are working hard to advance and earn tenure and promotion; they have limited time to devote to anything that won’t fit into their tenure and promotion efforts. Therefore, we try to find ways to frame ADP activities in ways that “count.”

We have been deliberate about building powerful relationships with faculty members who serve as campus coordinators. If we propose an initiative, or propose a new direction in an ongoing initiative, our campus coordinators are frank in their assessment of the success of these proposals. Additionally, because the work has become “personal” for them, they are more impelled to contribute to the national movement.

Initiatives as Laboratories for Democracy

Because it’s important to develop ideas for programming before you go to scale, we’ve developed the Civic Engagement in Action Series. Each initiative provides us with an opportunity to develop partnerships at multiple levels with campus representatives, experiment with strategies for increasing civic engagement on the part of undergraduate students, and partner with leading national organizations. The strategies and programs we field test in those environments then get disseminated broadly across the 230 participating ADP institutions.

The Role of the Provost

We initially worked primarily with the chief academic officers (CAO) of AASCU institutions because our Academic Leadership and Change division conducts substantial programming for them, including two national meetings each year. As the president of the university increasingly becomes an external actor, it is the provost who is in charge of the day-to-day operations and agenda setting for the university, particularly for academic matters. We have found that provosts are key in institutionalizing civic engagement programming.

As budgetary circumstances become increasingly more complex and difficult, the provosts who have been engaged in ADP are now sheltering these programs because they see them as integral to the life and success of the university, and to the health of their student body.

The Role of the President

Presidents are able to use their bully pulpit to call the university’s attention to issues of civic engagement. They can be a powerful voice with trustees, donors, and legislatures.

Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom

AASCU institutions reflect the vast diversity found in American higher education. Our institutions are located in both rural and urban settings, they are small and large, they span six Carnegie Classifications, and have very different institutional circumstances. With these unique circumstances in mind, we have not been prescriptive. Our campuses have been able to create a robust and innovative set of activities and projects and we have been able to spread these good lessons throughout the AASCU network.

Institutional Intentionality

Institutional intentionality is a signature concept of the American Democracy Project. We believe that the majority of students at an institution will not develop important citizenship skills unless civic engagement programming exists broadly across the campus, not in isolated islands of innovation. We also believe that institutions must be intentional in order to develop a broad commitment to civic learning. In the most intentional institutions, civic learning reaches most students, in student affairs programming, in requirements for the major, in general education, and in student and resident life.

Civic learning is enhanced and institution intentionality emphasized when there are administrative structures and budgets that are specified for civic learning. Civic learning is also increased when there are rewards and recognition for faculty and staff that undertake civic learning work: e.g., promotion and tenure guidelines, release time for faculty members, awards and public recognition.


For all the obvious reasons (students live tech-heavy lives) and non-obvious reasons, we’ve found that technology is integral to our work. It allows us to collaborate, share best practices, and provide a national stage for our work.

JDG: What lessons/memories will you hold closest to you as you embark on your Ph.D.?

CMO: More than anything, I have learned that the relationships that we create and build are central to this work. It is through the relationships that we’ve built with our partner organizations and with our faculty members, students, administrators and staff that we’ve been able to accomplish so much with so few resources.

My fondest memories have been created through these relationships. I will always remember the phone calls I would receive from faculty members, students, and provosts eager to share the good work they are doing. These calls served as reminders to me of why I spent hours toiling away in an office. Indeed, these calls inspired me to keep working hard.

JDG: ADP is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary. What hopes do you hold for the ADP in the next 10 years?

CMO: ADP was only supposed to be a three-year project. Next year we will celebrate our 10th year. We thought the project would last three years because that’s the lifespan of many projects in higher education. What we found was that there was sustained and growing interest and enthusiasm for the work. It is exciting to think that this energy will continue for another 10 years. While we’ve learned a lot, I know we still have much to learn. Below are a few things I hope ADP will accomplish in the next ten years.

I would like to see better assessment metrics and tools for understanding the impact of our work, both on students and in the community. I know it’s difficult to measure something like civic agency and community/university impact, but we need to be able to understand our impact so that we can refine and improve our work.

Much of our work is still marginal and celebratory which serves an important purpose, but stops short of reaching and educating each undergraduate student. I also hope that ADP campuses continue to drive civic engagement deeper and deeper into the core of the university. This includes the breaking down of silos on campuses where pockets of good work are going on and are not connected to one another.

Finally, I hope that students continue to be a major force in shaping and directing the work of the American Democracy Project. I truly believe that students know best what will inspire and engage them. If we are hoping to transform students, we must make their leadership central to our work.

I will always look upon my time at AASCU and directing ADP with great affection. We have done a lot of important work together and I look forward to seeing what will come next!

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