Beyond the Classroom: Fostering Civic Engagement in our Students

September
2010
David Morse, Curriculum Committee
Dennis Gervin, CIO Liaison, Curriculum Committee

Most faculty will agree that a student’s education involves more than just classroom instruction. Students also benefit from active participation in and awareness of their own communities, beginning at the college level and expanding outward to encompass citywide, statewide, and even national issues. Various Academic Senate resolutions over the past several years have noted the importance of student involvement, the most recent being resolution 9.04 from Fall 2009, which called for the Academic Senate to “encourage local senates to work with their faculty and local student leaders to identify means of incorporating civic engagement in curriculum and assignments.” However, while this particular resolution focuses on curriculum, direct instructional activities are only one of many ways in which faculty can promote civic engagement. A variety of barriers may inhibit or prevent students’ involvement on their campuses and in their communities, but colleges, senates, and individual faculty can employ a number of approaches to help students overcome those barriers and achieve a more complete and meaningful educational experience.

Impediments to Student Involvement
Multiple factors can discourage students from becoming involved in activities that might enhance their academic careers and deepen their appreciation and understanding of important issues. In the case of college governance, the first impediment may be students’ lack of understanding regarding the importance of their role. Many students are accustomed to high school “student council” organizations whose primary function is to plan parties and activities. However, Education Code section 76060 indicates that student organizations at community colleges are to have a much more significant role:

The governing board of a community college district may authorize the students of a college to organize a student body association. The association shall encourage students to participate in the governance of the college and may conduct any activities, including fundraising activities, as may be approved by the appropriate college officials. (emphasis added)

Thus, according to Education Code, the principal function of student organizations is to represent the student body in college governance, with activity planning taking a secondary and optional position. Many students coming from high school are unaware of this important role in their college’s leadership structure, and therefore they may be less likely to become involved with a body that they do not see as significant.

Likewise, students may be unaware of opportunities for involvement on their campuses and in their communities. Many important events that could interest or inspire students are not well publicized in some areas, including campus club activities, political rallies, social events, neighborhood or campus cleanups, and others. Often student organizations wish to cultivate interest in such events but have limited avenues for communication with the entire body of students on their campuses. Student participation is thus limited because many students do not know about the various opportunities for involvement available to them.

Perhaps the most commonly cited impediments to civic engagement by students are factors such as family issues, classroom and study demands, and work obligations due to limited financial resources. Community college students frequently are unable to devote themselves as fully as they might wish to their academic careers because they are balancing work, family, and study. For such students, the time required to engage in campus activities or in the community may seem simply unavailable. The desire to become involved may be present, but the reality of the student experience at the community college can conflict with that desire in many ways.

Fostering Civic Engagement at the Local Level
Colleges and faculty can encourage students toward civic engagement in various ways. Senates, programs, individual instructors or professors, and even colleges as a whole can all find avenues to foster awareness of and involvement in the lives of their campuses and communities.

Local senates can work with their colleges’ student organizations to help those organizations appreciate and understand their importance in college governance. Faculty can lobby to ensure that students are offered representative seats on college committees involving curriculum, planning, budget, and all other bodies on which a student perspective may prove valuable. Senates often find student organizations to be a valuable partner, as the joined voices of students and faculty can call greater attention to an issue or help to move an initiative forward more effectively.

Colleges can also foster student involvement by recognizing its significance in official documents or statements regarding the institution’s mission, values, and outcomes. Columbia College, for example, cites the importance of civic engagement in one section of its vision statement:

Columbia College will be a center for transformational learning promoted through critical and creative thinking that is open to change and personal growth; civic, environmental, and global awareness and engagement; and individual and collective responsibility. We will promote a culture of support for student learning across the institution that adopts a holistic approach. (emphasis added)

Likewise, Columbia College includes civic engagement as one of the institution’s core values through the following statement: “We value civic and global awareness. We promote the understanding and betterment of our planet by engaging our community.” Similar declarations regarding the importance of student involvement could be included in mission statements, general education outcomes, and other documents. Such highlighting of civic engagement will help students, faculty, and the public see the importance that the college attaches to awareness of and interaction with issues and experiences that reach beyond the classroom.

Some colleges have also developed extra-curricular programs to encourage student engagement. Within the Yosemite Community College District, both Columbia College and Modesto Junior College have developed and formalized Civic Engagement projects. The “MJC Civic Engagement Project” states its purpose as promoting “responsible social stewardship as a primary value in higher education” through a joint effort of the Yosemite Community College District, the college’s associated students organization, and the League of Women Voters of Modesto. The project includes film and lecture presentations, voter registration drives, environmental efforts, and multicultural education components.

Other faculty members promote civic engagement through classroom projects as a part of their curriculum. At Long Beach City College, the “Long Beach Communities Studies Project” came into being because “the faculty felt it was essential that students develop an awareness of the communities of which they are a part. Teaching and applying research skills on topics of pressing concern proves to be a promising vehicle for making students into engaged, informed local, national, and global citizens” (longbeachstudies.lbcc.edu). Classes from such disciplines as history, geography, sociology, anthropology, and economics have joined with external organizations including the National Archives and Records Regional office, the Historical Society of Long Beach, the Long Beach ACLU, Long Beach Public Health Department, Public Housing Department, Long Beach Unified School District, Port of Long Beach, and Long Beach Police Department Commission to develop research projects and other activities that students complete as class assignments, thus furthering their education within the classroom by engaging with the community outside.

Finally, perhaps the simplest method through which faculty can foster student involvement is by regularly taking a small amount of class time to publicize upcoming events. Whether faculty provide students with an opportunity to make such announcements or faculty make the announcements themselves, such practices can call possibilities for involvement to the attention of busy students who might otherwise not be aware of the events.

Encouraging Student Involvement Beyond the Local Community
In many cases, the same types of strategies and efforts that promote local involvement can likewise encourage students toward engagement at the state level. The Student Senate for California Community Colleges (SSCCC) was created “to communicate a unified student perspective to relevant constituent groups and elected officials in all matters directly affecting California Community College students” (www.studentsenateccc.org), and advocacy efforts by the SSCCC have proven very effective. The most recent general assembly of the SSCCC had over six hundred students from around the state in attendance. Yet because student leadership has a high turnover rate simply due to students moving on through graduation or transfer, colleges must continue to encourage student leaders to appreciate the importance of their voice, to attend the student general assemblies as well as Academic Senate plenary sessions, to involve themselves in local activities regarding statewide issues, and to participate in the SSCCC as elected representatives or through other means. Local academic senates can work to communicate this message to student organizations, and faculty in general can promote statewide involvement through the same methods they might use to foster local awareness.

Student participation is necessary for effective governance at the state and local levels, but, more importantly, civic engagement is an essential aspect of a complete and well-rounded education. Many avenues exist for encouraging this engagement, and by fostering student involvement faculty and colleges will enhance the educational experience of our students and more fully prepare those students to be active and productive members of their communities after that educational experience ends.

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