Civic Engagement and the College Campus

In a recent interview on 60 Minutes, Craig Kielburger tells reporter Scott Pelley that "kids are looking to get involved. They're searching for it. And in an era where adults often are looking for meaning and purpose in their lives, kids also want to assert who they are, not just by the video games they play or the peer groups they belong to, but by the contribution they make." Kielburger is the former wunderkind who started the charity, Free the Children, when he was 12 years old. Now a mature 30, Kielburger is an inspiration to young people everywhere -- kids who want to get involved with their communities and with the world.

Kielburger's words are heartening, particularly in an era where young people receive a bad rap for being self-interested and disengaged. As a college professor, I am aware of young people whose lives center around partying and playing games, but I also see many students who give of themselves through civic engagement and charity projects. I am the faculty adviser to a special interest (or SPINT) house at Ursinus College, a house focused on service. I am inspired by these young people who do so much more than I ever would have thought to do at their age.

When I was a college student 25 years ago, I focused on my goals, my ambition, my career. I was not aware of others' needs, nor how I might incorporate helping others into my future. But the residents of Hobson House have formed a living environment that fosters, at an important formative age, the importance of community involvement. Each of the 17 students in the house must propose and execute a project to serve others each semester. This charge takes many forms: donation drives for an array of charities, educational and awareness programming, community clean-ups, etc. The students volunteer at each other's events, they partner with other organizations, and they inspire other students on campus to become involved. These young men and women do not receive academic credit for their work. The inspiration is simply to assist others, and to live in a supportive atmosphere that fosters this kind of service work. One student says that "living in Hobson has allowed me to immerse myself in volunteering because of the culture of the house and everyone's diverse interests." Each of these students lives a life that Kielburger suggests will make a societal impact: "If you give kids the inspiration and the tools to change the world, it'll change their own lives also in the process and the ripple effect is incredible."

Many of these students grew up in families that encouraged this kind of involvement. "Community service has always been a part of my life, and my experiences with my family and organizations in my town have shown me that everyone can serve, no matter how young, old, rich or poor," one student reports. When they arrived at college, these students sought a living environment that would allow them to continue the interests started at home, thereby creating a familial atmosphere on campus. "Having a good group of people with a common interest makes Hobson that much more like home, or a lot homier than the other dorms," one of the residents tells me.

Another student explains how the house has shaped his thinking processes: "If there is a community, it will have a problem, and I seek to help empower communities to help them solve their own problems." When I was 20 years old, thoughts like this never would have entered my head. Another student states that "I am really empathetic to those who have faced hardships in their lives, and it fascinates me to learn about their stories and the struggles they have overcome. I feel like it is my duty to give back what is deserved to them." I am proud to be the faculty adviser to these young people who are passionate about the world around them. I am astounded by the maturity and positive nature of their thoughts.

Being humbled is a theme that many of these students share. "I feel so humbled after volunteering and it's a feeling that I want to always have and pass it on to my eventual family," says one. "It's a humbling experience to participate in a service project, and it refocuses people on what really is important in life," says another. I was well into my 40's before I started to realize this. I am amazed that these young people are so grounded and insightful at such a young age. Their words are inspiring to me:

  • "The world is so much bigger than what I occupy. Living at Hobson reminds me that, as stressed out as I can get, I am still so lucky."

  • "Service activities give a sense of what is going on in the world and open your mind to knowledge that you can't obtain from just being in a classroom. It makes people appreciative of what they have been given."
  • "People who do community service or who are dedicated to helping others are more aware of the world around them, and can see outside the 'campus bubble' that most people get wrapped up in. It is nice to be able to go into the common room and for it be normal to have a conversation about something other than what is happening on campus."
  • Craig Kielburger says that "when you bring enough young people, enough kids, together then suddenly those kids can change the world." I am witness to this in my academic environment through the motivational work of the students that I advise at Ursinus' Hobson House. I am confident that their work will continue to trigger others into service and will lead to the change in the world of which Kielburger speaks.