Expanding Students Civic Participation through the DC Experience

William R. Butler Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership Development, University of Miami

June 18, 2018

Students often describe feeling passionate about specific issues, but they do not know where or how to direct those passions. They express a desire to make a difference, but they are unsure of how to utilize their own voice. After hearing these concerns of University of Miami students, the William R. Butler Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership Development introduced a unique, one-of-a-kind, immersive leadership program, Leadership UMiami. This program allows students the opportunity to uncover their own civic values as they explore topics related to democracy and social change. The majority of the program takes place locally, within the South Florida community with visits to community agencies, conversations with local leaders about how they were introduced to democracy, and weekly sessions during a seven week period. The students selected are placed into small groups focusing on a variety of social issues and throughout the program, students created a personal tool kit in order to begin to enact change in the world. However, a significant highlight of the program culminates in a trip to Washington, D.C. During this four-day trip, students are able to see how democracy is achieved in the nation’s capital through various community and site visits, tours and more.

While traveling to D.C. with twenty-four undergraduates, four professional advisors and two student coordinators may seem like a daunting task, the lessons learned and civic learning opportunities that were created were invaluable. Here’s what we took away: 

Listen. It is evident that students have a desire to engage in civic experiences, but we found that in order for them to feel activated, they need to first have the opportunity to sit back and listen to the experiences and teachings of others regarding the process, before diving in feet first. Some of these experiences took place during the students’ chat with NASPA’s President, Dr. Kevin Kruger, regarding the current climate in higher education, visiting with the International Rescue Committee, and speaking with the Campus Vote Project.  

Explore. One of the components of the Washington, D.C. Experience for Leadership UMiami was allowing the students time for their own exploration into how their subgroups’ social issues presented themselves in the capital. In this instance, students were able to play an active role in their learning by visiting national monuments and various museums. Through this experience, students were able to see what progress has been made with these specific social issues and what changes still need to be made. As part of the exploration, all students in the program had the unique opportunity to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Reflect. When it comes to developing civic experiences for students, it is easy to overlook the power in quality reflection. However, this is a vital piece for students to make meaning of their experiences in the contexts of their own lives. As part of the program, students were provided a journal to reflect after each of the sessions and experiences. Following the D.C. Experience, students were encouraged to internally process through journaling and externally process through discussions and a final reflection was conducted the last day of the experience. 

Engage. Being an engaged citizen is an outcome that we hoped to see in our students following this experience. As part of the experience, students were asked to create a presentation on their issue, the tools and the knowledge they gained during their time in the program. In addition to the group presentation, each individual created a ‘Civic Blueprint’. These Blueprints contained information ranging from what they personally gained from the program, issues they are passionate about, facts they deemed important to share, to their vision of the future of our country and how Leadership UMiami has enhanced their abilities to be engaged citizens.

Overall, in reflecting about this program, students showed an overwhelming response of being able to identify their own personal civic values, having a better understanding of the democratic process and feeling empowered to affect change now. One of the greatest takeaways we learned has been the importance of creating community. While the students that participated benefited from the program structure, they also highlighted multiple times about how they were able to find community within the program itself. This was through their overall sense of belonging and connecting with others that have similar passions and care about similar issues related to democracy and social change. As administrators and campus leaders, we can take these lessons learned from Leadership UMiami and apply them to our programing to better engage the future leaders of our world. However, we also must understand the importance of creating communities and space for our students to engage in dialogue and understanding around issues important to them. Providing these opportunities and spaces can further the civic participation on our campuses and create a greater sense of community.


  • Andrew D. Wiemer, Director of the William R. Butler Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership Development, University of Miami
  • Lindsey Woods, Assistant Director of the William R. Butler Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership Development, University of Miami

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