The Strategic Benefits of Student Civic Learning and Identity

Juliette Landphair, Ph.D., Vice President for Student Affairs, University of Mary Washington

July 11, 2017

In 1908, twelve years before U.S. women could vote on a national level, the state of Virginia founded the University of Mary Washington as a teaching college -- the “State Normal and Industrial School for Women in Fredericksburg” was our uplifting original name -- to train women as public school teachers for the surrounding community. At the time, most southern institutions were segregated, so this opportunity was only offered to white women. Over the decades, Mary Wash has expanded our curricular offerings and opened up to African-American women (1960s) and men (1970s), and today, people from all identities and backgrounds attend the institution. The public purpose of our original mission as a teacher preparatory college continues to inspire us. Today and into the future, we seek to honor our institution’s founding mission through civic engagement so that our students graduate from here ready to serve, whatever their careers.

As we know in Student Affairs, college is a period of immense change and growth during which values and identities shift and land in new places thanks to knowledge gained and opportunities experienced. Understanding and responding to student identity development are critical aspects of our work. For students involved in civic engagement, the way they see the world—and their role in it—often changes profoundly. By addressing community-identified concerns alongside citizens, advocates, and activists outside the institution, students come to understand and value perspectives different from their own. By working to address social and financial realities that put classroom knowledge in a very real light, students’ empathy grows and their critical thinking becomes more complicated.

The impact of civic engagement on student learning is thus powerful. Staff and faculty involved also report gaining transformative knowledge through their civic learning work. This learning can happen through volunteerism, courses, alternative breaks, research projects, discussion series, and fellowships.

How can we communicate these effects with broader audiences? Below are some ways:

  • Understand this historical context of your institution. What part of that story can inspire advocacy for civic engagement?
  • Survey the contributions and effects of civic engagement at your institution.
  • See how these effects reflect and deepen stated institutional values and goals.
  • Form coalitions with other interested faculty and staff colleagues.
  • Decide upon and articulate shared values to drive decisions.
  • Develop an integrated, cross-campus approach to community engagement with major strategic goals.
  • Build and sustain lasting partnerships with community organizations.
  • Build a method of assessment of student learning for student engagement that can help make the argument for further investment and growth.
  • Provide incentives for faculty and staff involvement in civic engagement.

As educators, we can work alongside our faculty and staff colleagues to forge a commitment to community-based learning that profoundly shapes how our students understand and appreciate the opportunities of college and that prepares students for their role as involved citizens who will engage in service throughout their lives. 

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