Can a Student Be a Civic-Minded Graduate without a Community Partner Relationship?

Lorrie Brown, Director of Student and Staff Engagement in the Center for Service and Learning IUPUI

March 31, 2017

As the spring semester winds to a close, IUPUI, like many campuses, is in the midst of awards season.    The IUPUI Center for Service and Learning administers the application and selection process for our outstanding “civic-minded graduates”: the William M. Plater Civic Engagement Medallion.  This graduation medallion, celebrating its 10th year in existence, is awarded to undergraduate or graduate/professional students who exhibit an exemplary commitment to their communities during their academic careers in areas such as service learning courses, volunteer service, community-based research and community work-study. 

Constructing an application and selection criteria for measuring students’ civic-mindedness for this award has been a source of much discussion since the Plater Medallion’s inception. I have assisted in crafting the application and selection criteria since its first year, and initially, we tended to equate quantity with excellence:  the more service hours, work hours, and the number of courses, the better. Since then we have limited students to describing up to three of their most “meaningful” experiences, which has provided students with a chance to reflect more deeply on their community.  The application also requires an essay of 750 – 1000 words as well as a recommendation from a staff or faculty member.  In the initial years, an applicant could also include a community partner recommendation, but this component was optional.

As I was contemplating this blog about community partners, I was reminded of the ways that we ask our partners to participate in the Plater Medallion application and selection process. I have always been cognizant of not wanting to burden community partners with completing these recommendation forms, especially when a multitude of students is requesting them from the same person. Around the fifth year of the program, we decided to move the community partner recommendation from “optional” to “required”.  Since then, students have inquired multiple times what counts as a “community partner”: Did it have to be someone at a nonprofit agency?  Can it be a friend or faculty member? To tackle this issue, we have since change the wording to a “community partner/member” who has “advised, supervised or observed the applicant’s community-based/civic engagement experience”.

Upon a recent review of the applications, most students request the community partner recommendations from representatives who work at external nonprofit or governmental agencies.  The next largest set of applications include recommendations from two IUPUI faculty/staff members and a handful comes from an applicant’s friend or acquaintance with whom the applicant has volunteered or worked.  As you may have guessed from the title of this blog, those students who obtain a recommendation from a community partner at a nonprofit/governmental agency seem to fare better and score higher than those who do not.    

Why might this be the case?  There are multiple possibilities.  Our scoring rubric criteria for the Plater Medallion includes an emphasis on a applicants’ understanding and contribution to mutually beneficial community impact, and this impact may be better articulated from nonprofit/governmental partners who are closest to the community.  We also engage some of IUPUI’s nonprofit/governmental community partners as application reviewers, and perhaps these reviewers more easily identify with the recommendations from those who are similar to them.

One component of the application is a  750-1000 word essay responding to the prompt, ”I have a responsibility and a commitment to use the knowledge and skills I have gained as an undergraduate student to collaborate with others, who may be different from me, to help address issues in society.”  (The graduate/professional student prompt is a variation on this statement.) Having reviewed many of the applications myself,  I have found that those applicants who submit their “community partner/member” recommendation from someone who is not a nonprofit or governmental representative sometimes take more of a philosophical, rather than personal, approach towards answering this essay prompt.  I might also characterize this approach as an “academic distance”. 

As the title of this blog implies, I have been wondering: Must students have a relationship with someone who comes from nonprofit/governmental community work (and can attest on the student’s behalf) in order to receive this type of award?  Are students with direct community partner connections more likely to be highly civic-minded than those without?  

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