One of the principles of Honours programmes is to encourage civic engagement; to help our student realise the impact they can make when they put their talents to work for local and global communities. However, it seems it’s not enough for us, as teachers, to articulate this to inspire a student to be in- or extrinsically motivated to do so. What seems to be the key to igniting advocacy or civic action is the depth to which a student’s surroundings encourage them to do so. Now, that may seem logical to you: that students who surround themselves with motivated others benefit from a sort of social contagion. But according to a recent article by Barnhardt, Sheets and Pasquesi (2015), “students’ acquisitions of commitments to and skills for contributing to the larger community are largely influenced by the extent to which students perceive their campus as one that advocates for its students to be active and involved citizens.” (p.622)
In other words, it’s not only exposure to active peers which factors highly in building civic skills: campus climate, university leaders and staff as role models, and availability of community-based programmes are strong predictors of a student’s eventual community commitment.
The article went on to present research findings which encouraged me to reflect on my own campus. What do we, university leadership, staff and teachers, do to ACTIVELY role model our expectations? The researcher notes that “it is the overall campus ethos or climate that drives students’ civic inclinations and social change aspirations; and that the campuses most effective at cultivating citizenship are successful in conveying the expectation that students learn to intellectually and emotionally understand human suffering to be able to contribute to their communities.
When I think about my own campus I wonder: how much do we, as an institution on a fundamental level, make our goal of civic engagement a daily, visible practice within our campus community? Could we make it more explicit? Especially as my own university focuses strategic attention to the concept of “bildung”, I wonder if maybe it is necessary to consider how we, as individuals and as an organization, can actively create a campus community which complements our values.
A few thoughts…
- When you look around your campus, does it feel like a campus which is actively involved? How and where is this engagement in societal issues displayed and discussed? How is your campus encouraging this debate?
- According to the research, participation of community projects in and out of class had a positive effect on later civic commitment (p., 635). Is our campus climate acting as a resource or a liability for civic engagement? Can our campus make opportunities to engage more available for all staff and students? Could we become a resource, a hub for opportunities in our area?
- We recognize civic engagement as a key criteria / indicator of excellent (Honours) behaviour: but how are we demonstrating these projects to the Hanze community, highlighting their results and encouraging the ripple effect? And by demonstrating, I mean more than short-lived sentences on a website or a presentation seen by a selected few. How can we build a history of our communities’ accomplishments for others to build upon?
- Who should be charged to lead civic engagement activities on a larger scale? Should civic engagement be a requirement not only for student but for all staff? Shouldn’t our role models be the ones celebrated?
- Could a university follow in the footsteps of responsible companies and actively promote/support faculty with time to volunteer built in to their activities? We tend to give resources to the projects we deem valuable, shouldn’t community involvement b one of them?
- Many universities and student organizations contribute to charitable causes, but often the demonstrated effect of these actions are not widely publicized. Could we do more to share our stories? To make our role models more recognizable?
- And could we start with little things, like when it’s time to vote, do reminding our students and staff to do so, of their responsibilities as citizens?
In summary, if we want to cultivate our student’s commitment to their communities, it’s not enough just to tell them to become engaged of surround them with active peers. We need to provide abundant opportunity, examples and act as role models for them to follow. That means that YOU (teacher, administrator and university board member) must yourself become actively and visibly involved in YOUR communities, and work to make campus a place where civic dialogue and action is visible, valued, and encouraged. How can we begin?
By Melissa Oudshoorn-Fuller, PhD candidate. Talent Development in Higher Education and Society Professorship
- Barnhardt, C., Sheets, J., Pasquesi, K., (2015) “You Expect What? Students’ Perceptions as Resources in Acquiring Commitments and Capacities for Civic Engagement”, Research in Higher Education, 56:622–644. DOI 10.1007/s11162-014-9361-8