Starting Small: Developing a Civic Ethos at a Community College

Jan Lloyd, Associate Vice President for Student Development, Seminole State College of Florida

February 22, 2018

Nationally, community college’s primary focus is to serve their district through improved local economies and workforce development initiatives. Working regionally, colleges create and offer degree programs to serve the local employment demand or for students to transfer to a four-year institution. So how does civic engagement efforts fit into a mission focused on workforce needs? Many times, civic engagement work is not an emphasis, so the question becomes, how do community colleges develop a civic ethos to introduce and educate students on community/social justice issues?

Unlike four-year universities who may have a Center for Civic Engagement or an Office of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement, community colleges may have little to no financial or staffing resources for civic engagement work. In addition, the “traditional” student at two-year institutions are first generation, enrolled part-time, work part or full-time, or have children so getting them engaged in activities outside of class are difficult.

Seminole State College of Florida faced similar issues when it joined the NASPA LEAD Initiative in 2014. With no office or staff overseeing civic engagement work, it started to create new customs and habits focusing on non-political and political initiatives. Here are some small steps Seminole State College of Florida took in developing a civic ethos:

Develop a definition and framework

One of the first steps Seminole State took was to research definitions and civic engagement models to develop a civic engagement framework to drive programming and outcomes.

Add reflection to volunteer work

Seminole State Volunteers (SSV) is a group of students within the Office of Student Life who coordinate service projects for the 30,000 students at the college. Generally made up of 4-8 students, they would organize with various local agencies for service but there was no educational component about the work they were doing or the impact they were having. Subsequently, Seminole State staff trained SSV student leaders to research the agency prior to the service, communicate this to volunteers at the site, and have students complete a reflection at the end of the day on the impact they felt they had. This allowed students to gain a better understanding of the community issue and how they were making a difference.

Divide responsibilities

With no office nor staff for civic engagement work, Seminole State secured an Americorp Volunteer for $10,000 with student activity fees to develop efforts in the first year. This person worked collaboratively with the Coordinator of Student Life who advised SSV as well as the Student Government Association who assisted with voter registration efforts. Rather than a single person taking responsibility, the efforts were divided among the Americorp Volunteer and a couple existing staff within Student Life. Are their champions at your institution who could assist with civic engagement work?

Create simple programs

Seminole State started small with expanding its civic engagement work. First, it partnered with TurboVote to increase voter registration. By putting announcements on the College’s learning platform, Canvas, students used TurboVote to submit paperwork to register to vote. In the first year, there were over 500 students who registered to vote. In addition, Seminole State coordinated a Get Out & Vote campaign to educate students about the issues being voted on, where to go vote, and what they needed to bring with them. Second, the Americorp Volunteer facilitated a couple of deliberative dialogue workshops on social justice issues. Using simple butcher block paper, Seminole State created a temporary democracy wall with a question to students about public versus private education, as an example. Comments from the democracy wall framed the dialogue and conversation in the workshops. Over the years, Seminole State has created a Civic Scholars program for up to 10 students to participate in several educational sessions around community issues and then volunteer up to 15 hours addressing those needs.

Depending on the community college’s mission statement, civic engagement work may or may not be a priority. But by taking small steps, an ethos of learning about community issues, understanding how students can make a difference, and getting them engaged is possible.

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