Incentivizing Full Participation in Civic Engagement

Samantha Collins, Community Work Study Coordinator and Sean Crossland, Director of the Thayne Center for Service and Learning

February 5, 2018

There are many reasons students choose to attend a community college. Cheaper tuition and flexible scheduling rank high in decision-making processes. Many community college students are balancing complex schedules involving work and family responsibilities to complement their study schedule, which may be done during the weekend, at night, or online. At Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), 70% of our students work while they attend school; part of the reason why this is possible is that we offer classes at 10 different campuses around the Salt Lake Valley at a variety of times, as well as online classes.

In a traditional model of volunteerism on college campuses, most civic engagement work is unpaid. The Independent Sector currently values volunteer labor at $24.14/hour. We can see that there is a contrast in the value and productivity generated from volunteerism and the fact that people do not receive compensation for this work, despite the skills, knowledge, and qualifications needed for working in the social change sector. As civic engagement offices, we risk perpetuating the norm where important social change work is relegated to people who are not paid, which may limit our impact in the communities we serve and who is able to participate.

At the Thayne Center for Service and Learning, we do our best to align the majority of the opportunities we offer with some sort of financial support.  Providing financial support for our programming strengthens the student experience in our program and, by extension, the impact that our Center makes within the community.

Students who come to the Thayne Center for Service and Learning want to have a positive impact in their community. The reality is that many students need some type of compensation in order to have that positive impact. As students express interest in engaging with their community, it is important that we have a wide variety of opportunities to accommodate the full range of student schedules and interests. The challenge is to find balance and authenticity in building the capacity of community partners and the needs of students.

Students are able to maintain greater balance in all aspects of their life if they are able to earn an AmeriCorps Education Award program for educational expenses, earn work study financial aid awards with community partners, or receive a tuition waiver for their student leadership. In 2016-2017, the Thayne Center disbursed over $65,000 amount in funding to support community engagement activities. We anticipate that this amount will grow in 2017-2018 and future academic years.

When students view community engagement as a financially funded position, they begin to see the deeper connections between their studies, their career, and the social change sector. Beyond promoting volunteering as a way to be civically engaged, we believe that the role of civic engagement centers is also to make students more aware of the social change sector as a career. An excellent tool to support students in conceptualizing career options with social-change emphasis is Stanford’s Pathways to Public Service and Civic Engagement. This tool can work to move students beyond the mentality that volunteering is the only way to make substantive contributions to social issues. When a health sciences major is able to earn their work study financial aid award at a nonprofit organization offering free medical services for uninsured and low-income individuals, they will gain hands on experience witnessing the inequities in access to health care and will enter the classroom with a different perspective on how to better serve all patients.

How do we encourage and reward civically engaged students? If we assume that people should do this work to ‘give back’ or ‘because it’s the right thing to do’, we are focusing on a specific type of student. However, if we recognize this work as a valuable contribution to academic and professional trajectories, and hopefully the communities in which we work, then it is only logical to make engagement experiences financially viable for everyone. If we believe that democratic engagement is an essential outcome of the college experience, we can stop short at nothing but full participation.

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