Grand Valley State University (GVSU) Activate Readiness Modules

Grand Valley State University

January 16, 2018

Grand Valley State University (GVSU) Activate Readiness Modules:  Centering Identity, Community, Power and Privilege in Preparation for Community Engagement

According to Thomas and Benenson (2017) higher education’s civic mission is undergoing scrutiny and revitalization. Historically, higher education has not only sought to prepare students for success in their careers post-graduation, it has also seen its role as preparing students for public participation as citizens (Thomas & Benenson, 2017). As such, colleges and universities support a variety of forms of civic engagement – which we believe is a strength. We recognize, however, that by “framing student civic engagement as ‘working to make a difference in the civic life of communities,’ higher education has adopted socially acceptable and safe approaches to the development of students as citizens” (Thomas & Benenson, 2017, p. 2).

Saltmarsh and Hartley (2011) gathered insights from academic leaders across the United States and make the case there is a need to serve a larger purpose. Their critique of the civic engagement movement in higher education posits that campuses promote community service activities but rarely challenge the status quo or larger social structures, and therefore fail to change the norms of academic and institutional culture. The argument is that this must be taught or else “the movement will be relegated to volunteerism and stopgap service, falling short of democratic engagement” (Morgan & Orphan, 2016, p. 12). While a social justice lens may work well for some disciplines, adoption of it across all disciplines, as the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) advocates for civic engagement, may not work.

At Grand Valley State University (GVSU) our mission is to educate students to shape their lives, their professions and their societies. As part of our campus offerings, we seek to enhance civic engagement opportunities through co-curricular experiences with a critical frame that supports addressing complex issues. This philosophy supports AAC&U’s Shared Futures Initiative, which believes students live in an interdependent and unjust world and that higher education can prepare them to thrive in the world, while imaginatively and dutifully remedying inequalities and problems (Core Competencies in Civic Engagement, 2013).

Student affairs professionals in both the Divisions of Student Services and Inclusion and Equity at GVSU are important stakeholders who advance democratic engagement across campus. With an emphasis on co-curricular programs and services, they view learning as a “comprehensive, holistic, transformative activity that integrates academic learning and student development” (American College Personnel Association, 2004, p. 2). As such, they led the evolution of a gender-justice-based service-learning program started by the Center for Women and Gender Equity called Activate.  Representatives from five campus social justice centers - the Center for Women and Gender Equity, the LGBT Resource Center, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Disability Support Resources and Campus Interfaith Resources - and the Community Service Learning Center (CSLC) in the Office of Student Life, led by Sharalle Arnold, Juanita Davis, Jessica Jennrich, and Marla Wick, provided the leadership for this effort. 

Activate recognizes that, prior to engaging with communities in a meaningful, respectful and transformational way, students must be equipped with the tools to understand their social identities, the way(s) that identity, power, and privilege shape their experience of the world around them, and the perception that a given community will have of them. To aid students in developing this understanding, a series of Activate civic engagement readiness modules were developed in collaboration with a talented group of community youth from Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities, a local community partner, with the GVSU Act on Racism student theatre troupe. Activate modules name how a students’ gender, socioeconomic, racial, and sexual identities may shape their understanding. Importantly, they teach basics about systems that perpetuate power and disparities and political inequality, understanding this knowledge is necessary to develop agency.

Activate provides service learning opportunities that support transformative learning (Mezirow & Taylor, 2009) -- challenging students to assess their value systems and worldviews and, as a result, to be potentially changed by the experience. Following training, students lead these days of service, which primarily serve underrepresented and/or marginalized communities, while embedding reflection throughout the experience. The program is designed to help students examine how socialization and society influences the ways in which they may experience civic development.

“In expanding ACTIVATE into the other four social justice centers and CSLC, our hope was to provide students with an accessible, nuanced foundation for what civic engagement is and how it fits into the larger picture of their liberal arts education at GVSU.” – Marla Wick

More information about Activate can be found here.

Activate student civic engagement readiness modules can be found here.


  • Melissa Baker-Boosamra, Associate Director of Student Life - Civic Engagement and Assessment, Grand Valley State University
  • Marlene Kowalski-Braun, Assistant Vice President for Inclusion and Student Affairs, Grand Valley State University


  • Mezirow, J., Taylor, E. W., & Associates. (2009): Transformative learning in practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Morgan, D.L. & Orphan, C.M. (2016). Student Political Engagement in the Co-Curriculum:  Understanding the Role of Senior Student Affairs Officers. eJournal of Public Affairs, 5(2), 2-13, doi:
  • Saltmarsh, J., & Hartley, M. (2011). To serve a larger purpose: Engagement for democracy and the transformation of higher education. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  • McTighe Musil, C. (2015, May). Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine across the Disciplines. Retrieved from
  • The Center for Democracy and Core Competencies Committee. (2013).  Core Competencies in Civic Engagement:  A Working Paper in the Center for Engaged Democracy’s Policy Paper Series, 1-34. Retrieved from
  • Thomas, N., & Benenson, J. (2017). The Evolving Role of Higher Education in U.S. Democracy, eJournal of Public Affairs, 5(2), 1-9, doi:

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