Beyond Volunteering: Civic Engagement in Action

The innovations that change the world tend to come from determined, engaged problem solvers -- people who can stick to an area of inquiry long enough to answer the question 'why' at least five times.

Take Japanese businessman Taiichi Ohno, for example --the "Father of the Toyota Production System" -- the most looked-to and studied production model in the world. Ohno trained his team to ask 'why' at least five times. As a result, they produced the production system that changed the face of manufacturing, introduced lean manufacturing to the U.S., and transformed sales, marketing, and service models around the world.

Staying with a problem long enough to ask 'why' over and over again isn't easy or common - that's why it is so powerful! I was reminded of this recently when I defined the difference between volunteerism/community service and civic engagement: simply put, volunteerism asks 'what' while the civic engagement asks 'why'. Volunteerism asks 'what are the problems?' and 'what can be done to make a difference?' Civic engagement asks 'why' does a certain circumstance exist in the first place? Why is there a need?

Volunteering is vitally important and it is often the first step to really getting involved but the challenge of higher education is bigger than that. Our duty is to enable ingenuity and to prepare students to ask the difficult questions, find the root causes, and implement solutions.

Step One: Engagement at Home

One of the most effective ways to encourage involvement in civic engagement activities is to let students create the opportunity and bring it to the community. By exposing students to the issues through social justice events, such as those to raise awareness of poverty, hunger, homelessness, sexual violence and abuse, and environmental sustainability, we open the door for them to find an issue that speaks to them, analyze it, and come alive as they work to find a solution.

Effective and exemplary academic departments are the ones that can fuse civic engagement into their programs in meaningful ways. Here's an example: High costs for animal treatment often prevent potential owners from adopting animals so veterinary students to use their skills at local shelters to reduce that burden and help the animals find loving homes. Or, culinary students use their skills to manage a community kitchen, to feed community patrons in need while also learning why the need exists in the first place and what they can do to fix it.

These students are being challenged to do more than just volunteer in their communities or earn credit- they're learning how their studies apply to real-world problems and how they can use their skills to benefit others around the world.

Step Two: Taking Civic Engagement out into the World

The key to civic engagement is that it cannot be limited to the classroom or community. It is part of the larger world. When students can see problems around the globe and ask 'why' over and over again, they can come up with the 'how' - the solutions that we need them to come up with to help change the world!

In 2010, volunteers from around the world went to Haiti to help after the earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince. Students wanted to help so they came from colleges and universities around the world for the experience. They were focused on rebuilding medical buildings and providing care for livestock but, only those who left the experience still asking 'why' are returning today to put critical and innovative change in place to restore and transform Haiti.

Thoughtful, informed, and capable students who can go out into the world with passion, focus, and determination are the people who will succeed at facilitating the type of change the world needs. At Alfred State, we call this project-based learning which is classroom learning skillfully intertwined with civic engagement but, the secret ingredient is cultivating a powerful passion for asking 'why'.

President bio:
Dr. John M. Anderson, the 11th president of Alfred State, holds a doctorate in education from Cornell University, a master's degree in physics from State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo, a bachelor's degree in physics from The College at Brockport, and an associate degree in math and science from Westchester Community College. He has previously served as executive vice president and provost at Hartwick College; held several administrative positions in fields of institutional advancement, student development, and student services; served in teaching and academic posts at several SUNY schools; and has worked as a consultant for several entities, including the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and the New York State Department of Education.