Build It and They Will Engage – But Who Engages

Christopher D. Jensen, Director Civic Engagement & Social Responsibility, Towson University ·

June 6, 2018

How do we build the sustainable collective action of Civic Agency so everyone engages? As we know, when higher education was built, there was not a diversity of people attending.  However, as higher education has evolved the diversity and inclusion has increased, and we can do better. Towson University (TU), as many institutions of higher education, has identified service-learning as a pedagogical means to help students become engaged with issues of diversity and inclusion.  Service-learning has been effective in both instilling civic responsibility in students and helping them comprehend issues of diversity and inclusion.  Service-learning at TU is supported by the Office of Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility where staff assist faculty, students and community organizations in designing, implementing and evaluating service-learning courses. Therefore, if TU, as well as higher education, is hoping to prepare students for Civic Action by being involved in the community through service-learning – who are the students in the classes being engaged? 

What Have We Learned from the Data?

To examine this question, I looked at the data from the TU service-learning courses that have been designated (tagged) for the last 5 years. In the Fall 2014, we had 388 students, which has increased to 511 in the Fall of 2017.  With the understanding that TU limits the options for demographics, I observed, male students, on average, represented only 18% of the enrollees.  Students who identified as White, on average, represented 70% of the enrollees with students who identified as Black or African American at 14%; Hispanic at 6% and Asian at 3%.  Over 70 percent of the students were Junior or Seniors.   The major with the most students was Family & Health Services. The next highest majors were Education (Special Education & Elementary Education), Nursing, Deaf Studies, Business Administration, Psychology, with Sociology/Anthrophony, Political Science, Biology, and Mass Communications rounding out the top 10.   There were some graduate students in Occupational Therapy participating service-learning courses.

From the data, it appeared that TU was only engaging, on average, students who identified as White and female. If we want to build the Civic Action and learn to work collaboratively across differences, how do we engage all students to be aware of the problems in their community so that they can understand more comprehensively, whether this problem is at the local or social level? Additionally, as seen in the data, are SL courses limited to students in certain majors? Where are the SL courses in Chemistry, Geography & Environmental Planning, Physics, Music, Information Technology, Theatre Arts to name a few at TU with less than 20 students over 5 years.

Are some students purposively not taking courses with a service-learning component?  Courses that are built around service-learning are unique because it places equal emphasis on enhancing student learning and meeting community needs. Research has shown that experiential education including, community service, internships and service-learning, offers students the opportunity to practice what they learn from traditional classroom teaching outside in the real world (Eyler & Giles, 1999). Students have stated: “What I have experienced and learned cannot be replicated in a traditional classroom. I’ve learned more in this class—about the criminal justice system, myself and others—than I’ve learned elsewhere. I’d take this class 10 [times] over” (Student, Criminal Justice outside the Classroom, CRMJ 431). If service-learning provides an environment of inquiry and allows students the opportunity to think and make meaning of their life and the world, then how do build a better representation in the courses. 

Colleges and universities have envisioned the collegiate experience to not only stretch students’ intellect, but also shape their attitudes and values. One means to shape students’ knowledge and predispositions is to engage them in the community through service-learning courses. As we continue to examine the CLDE Emergent Theory of Change, are we building courses to engage the Civic Agency with the demographics that we traditionally and easily have engaged with; or will institutions of higher education build and design new structures to prepare all students for concerned and involved citizenship in a democracy?

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