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Davidson Cited for Success in Engaging Students in Civic Learning

by Davidson College

Davidson has been selected as one of 50 colleges and universities nationwide to participate in an effort to increase civic learning and democratic engagement among students. The honor recognizes Davidson's considerable progress in that arena already, and provides a boost for further initiatives.

Davidson is one of just four educational institutions in the Carolinas cited as exceptional by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) along with UNC Greensboro, Wake Forest and Winthrop. NASPA hopes the 50 honored schools will set goals, gather data, share information and create strategies toward helping solve community problems through collective action. Representatives from each school will meet in person at two conferences next spring.

Davidson has increasingly been promoting civic engagement as an important component of curricular and co-curricular life. To highlight the evolving emphasis from community service into the broader emphasis, the Community Service Office was renamed in 2010 as the "Center for Civic Engagement."

The semantic switch maintained the importance of community service to involvement in the community, but recognized that other engagements, such as community-based learning, social entrepreneurship, engaged scholarship, social action, civic participation, and participatory action research can also connect academic mission to community-defined needs.

The college's success in its efforts under both office names is evidenced by its inclusion on the "President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll" all six years since the honor roll was created.

Associate Dean of Students Stacey Riemer directs Davidson's Center for Civic Engagement. She said, "Civic engagement is one of the core values of a Davidson education. Our goal is to educate students to not just graduate and get a job, but to graduate and lead a life as an engaged community member."

That idea is highlighted this year in a new Center for Civic Engagement logo, which says simply "Davidson Serves: Learn. Collaborate. Engage."

The college's commitment to civic engagement is being further affirmed by the relocation of the Center for Civic Engagement from existing quarters on the top floor of the Alvarez College Union to much larger space on that floor, which will be vacant when the Careers Office moves to the Brown Atrium level. It will allow the five professional employees to work in proximity to each other for the first time, and help the office centralize community engagement efforts on campus and conduct space-specific programming. Once in its new quarters, the center will host several open houses to explain the concept of civic engagement, and talk about integrating civic engagement into courses and programs. The move is expected to take place in mid spring.

A civic engagement student council, this year led by Grant Thomas '13, Sarah Klett '15 and Chazzo Habliston '13, coordinates Center for Civic Engagement office programming with the extracurricular efforts of 27 student groups. They groups include Adopt-a-Grandparent, Amnesty International, Colleges Against Cancer, Habitat for Humanity, International Justice Mission, Rotaract, and the Project Life bone marrow registration effort. Much of the leadership of those groups comes from the college's 80 Bonner Scholars -- students who fulfill their financial aid obligation through community work rather than work in college offices.

The Center for Civic Engagement also provides about $30,000 annually in grants to support students' proposals, and it also supports faculty members in integrating community-based learning into their courses. About 15 courses per year include this "scholarship of engagement," through which students apply the discipline at hand to a community problem. The efforts conclude with publication of the results at a poster session, or even presentation of the effort by a faculty member at a professional conference. Some of the courses involved include "Community Based Theatre for Social Justice," "Topics in American Politics," "Environmentalism on Film," "Mathematical Modeling", "Theoretical Explorations of Community Engagement", and "Food and Culture."

The center also sponsors about 20 speakers and events on campus. Recent ones have included a poverty simulation exercise, a luncheon with Guatemalan social entrepreneur Maria Pacheco, a Habitat shed build, a sleep-out with homeless neighbors, and "Service Saturdays." It also cosponsored programming around the 2012 elections, including the election night party held in the Alvarez College Union.

One of the center's most recent new initiatives is "The Emerging Issues Academy" offered in collaboration with the Center for Teaching and Learning and funded by the Associated Colleges of the South. This year the academy is bringing together groups of students, faculty, staff and community members to explore the topic "Access to Higher Education." Participants are meeting periodically to engage with experts in the field, discuss readings and brainstorm strategies to address the issue. At the end of the year, the groups will share ideas in a poster session, white paper, and community forum. If this pilot year is successful, new issues will be tackled by new participants in future years.

Riemer concluded, "The world is demanding people like Davidson students, who can be participating and engaged citizens capable of solving complex problems. Being recognized as a national leader is a reflection of quality of our existing efforts and of our commitment to inspiring students to challenge themselves moving forward."

Founded in 1919, NASPA comprises more than 13,000 members in this country and abroad, and is the leading association for the advancement, health, and sustainability of the student affairs profession. It provides programs, professional development, policy advocacy and research to that cultivate student learning and success in concert with the mission of member colleges and universities.