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Serving While Learning: Student Civic Engagement

Serving While Learning: Student Civic Engagement

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Updated on Feb 23, 2010

If you have a child in high school, chances are you’ll be hearing something about civic engagement or outreach or service learning. Maybe your child will participate in a community clean-up day, or spend 30 hours over the course of a semester helping out at a local shelter.

Most likely, your child will get to choose how she gets involved in the community. And if you’re lucky, the project will be tied to the curriculum, so your child will have a chance to reflect and think about how that volunteer work relates to her own life—and more specifically, to her life as a learner.

Tom Ehrlich, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation who co-directs the foundation’s Political Engagement Project, says the concept of civic engagement in higher education—using the classroom as a starting point for engaging students in national and local affairs—has been steadily growing on university campuses since the 1980s.

“This started with just a handful of college and university presidents that thought the ‘me generation’ was getting a bum rap,” says Ehrlich, who served as President of Indiana University from 1987 to 1994. Campus Compact was born in the ’80s out of a desire to educate college students to become active citizens equipped to solve society’s most pressing issues. Originally just four university presidents were involved in the effort, and today the coalition is made up of more than 1,100 college and university presidents.

These days, most college and university campuses have a center for civic engagement. And college students across the U.S. participate in activities ranging from working at rape crisis centers to interviewing community members fighting for a change in the local government. Here’s a look some examples of civic engagement projects going on around the country: 

Sample Service Learning and Civic Engagement Projects

  • Teaching literacy skills to disadvantaged youth in a local place of worship
  • Working with high school and middle school teachers to implement dramatization projects about human rights issues
  • Helping out with daily tasks at a local social service organization
  • Collaborating with local youth to create murals for public spaces
  • Using laminated reproductions of American artwork to talk to local school children about voting rights and the American electoral process
  • Raising money to support the local sheriff department

Service Learning Versus Community Service

How is all this different from community service? Officially, a project is considered to be service learning when it is integrated into the curriculum—not an add-on but actually a part of the curriculum.

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Lead Researcher for CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, says the impact of civic engagement and outreach has a lot to do with implementation. 

“In some universities and colleges, what civic engagement means is that students get sent out into the community to do volunteer work without reflection or intention,” she says. “The students might not have a chance to think about how that looks to them individually, and to their future. But some faculty really integrate the engagement into the curriculum and their teaching.”

She explains that, for instance, one college course might require students simply to go to a shelter pantry and help bag groceries; whereas in another course students might actually work with people who are homeless—they might speak with them about how they became homeless and about their needs, and then these students might prepare a report to the agency with their findings. This kind of experience makes a huge impact not only in terms of what the agency receives, Kawashima-Ginsberg says, but also in the students’ learning and in their likelihood to become engaged citizens in the future.  

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