Civic Engagement is an Essential Element of a College Education

As college students mark spring break with fun in the sun, a group of Ursinus College students in the Bonner leaders program are building houses in ravaged Jamaica. Many students use spring vacation to go on service trips, and we are reminded that civic engagement is an essential element in preparing young people for lives of purpose. A college experience is not complete without instilling an ethos of working for the common good. A graduate must not only be prepared to make a living but to make a life of purpose in which individual flourishing in intertwined with the welfare of others.

Ursinus's Center for Advocacy, Responsibility and Engagement (UCARE) organizes student volunteers to work in soup kitchens, after-school programs, and a hospice, among activities spread across 25 community partner organizations. The Student Government Association recently adopted a provision requiring all student organizations seeking funding to perform one service activity annually. Athletic teams volunteer in myriad charitable programs. Every fraternity and sorority is required to complete five hours of service activities each semester with at least 90 percent participation from its members.

In addition to encouraging co-curricular student programming and activities, the culture of service has to be embedded in the curriculum. The faculty is designing community-based service learning courses. Notably, the Environmental Studies program emphasizes service learning in its major requirements and partners with the Ursinus Office of Sustainability to create a campus that is a more environmentally and socially just place to live, learn, and work. Student Sustainability Fellows and EcoReps coordinate projects ranging from waste management and energy reduction to the recently established program in which our organic farm produces food for the dining services.

We are building on the model that civic engagement should be coordinated and promoted by student leaders under the mentorship of faculty and staff. Ursinus is one of 75 campuses in the nation where Bonner leaders perform 300 hours of service per year and enroll in a one-credit course each semester. The new Peace and Social Justice minor includes a four-credit applied learning experience. The faculty is considering a Civic Engagement designation for courses that include a social responsibility component.

Project Pericles, a non-profit organization of 29 colleges and universities committed to civic engagement, is engaged in a project to have its member campuses map and share their efforts to educate for social responsibility. They serve as models for other institutions desirous of connecting the classroom with community service.

This culture of service occurs best on a residential campus. MOOCs can teach the intellectual value of civic engagement, but they cannot provide the camaraderie of students and faculty working together.

Community engagement is important to our students. This year's incoming class cited involvement in community service more often than any other pre-college activity. We also know that employers regard evidence of social responsibility as a desirable trait in potential hires. More than half of employers surveyed in a Hart Research Associates study said they would like to see greater emphasis on civic knowledge, civic participation, and community engagement in college.

Creating a culture of service on a campus involves everyone from the President down. Many colleges are exploring how to best provide all students with opportunities leading them to become contributing members of their communities. Higher education is not just about teaching knowledge and skills in preparation for entering the workforce. Preparing students to be good citizens is a higher education responsibility that should not be forgotten in the discussion on outcomes.