Preparing Swarthmore College Students for Ethical Engagement

January 30, 2019

By Jennifer Magee and Katie L. Price*

The Eugene M. Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility at Swarthmore College exists, in part, to facilitate Swarthmore College’s commitment to intellectual rigor, ethical engagement, and social responsibility. Watch to learn more about who we are and what we do. Our summer grant programs—made possible through the generosity of the Swarthmore Foundation and the Eugene M. Lang Foundation—are a key way in which we help students synthesize these three areas by connecting the campus, curriculum, and communities. While we believe deeply in the power of learning by doing, we also recognize that we would not be fulfilling our mission if we did not work to ensure that students were prepared to engage ethically.

In the past two years, we have redesigned how we prepare students for ethical engagement and are happy to share some of what we’ve learned with the GlobalSL community. As an overview, our process for summer grantees consists of:

  • One-on-one advising sessions before applications open
  • As part of their application, students reflect on how their proposed summer experience could synthesize intellectual rigor, ethical engagement, and social responsibility
  • Awarded students complete a Training Needs Assessment to inform design of additional preparation
  • Swarthmore faculty, staff, and community partners host a series of required workshops and lectures focused on ethical engagement and other training needs
  • Vetted community organizations and partners, faculty, staff, and alumni provide ongoing mentorship and support throughout the summer
  • Students complete mid- and final-reflections, which include prompts that assess ethical learning; staff reach out if/when student reflections indicate the need for extra guidance
  • Students participate in a post-experience lunch where they share learning with each other and the broader campus community

Acknowledging that training for ethical engagement can’t happen in one day or even several series of events, we design our applications for funding to be based primarily on the ways in which students have been academically prepared to engage. This might mean having a solid theoretical base in the issue/country with which they will be engaging; having taken community-based learning courses with similar populations; or conducting a research project directly related to their proposed summer plans. By forefronting the importance and intersection of rigor, ethics, and responsibility, we model for students that ethical engagement requires substantial investment.

For the past two years, we have engaged faculty to prepare students for ethical engagement in the summer months as they go across the globe to connect their academics with action. Faculty, staff, and community partners have covered such topics as community assessment; power, positionality, and privilege; and the role of humility in ethical engagement, particularly in international contexts. This type of training not only helps to prepare students, but it has the added benefit of introducing students to different disciplinary methods and methodologies. For example, a biology major hoping to start a science education program in Thailand might learn best practices of engagement from the perspective of anthropology.

To encourage critical reflection on action, all summer grantees are required to respond to the following question: “In 250-300 words, describe a situation during your internship, research, or project that created a dilemma for you in terms of what to say or do. What did you do and why? How might someone critique your choice? List three other actions you might have taken. Which of the above seems best to you now and why do you think this is the best response?”** Student responses have provided us with insight into the kinds of ethical dilemmas they have faced and ideas for how we might better prepare future grantees. This year, we will add an ethical engagement prompt to our annual Training Needs Assessment to gather “baseline” data in addition to the final reflection prompt, as well as to the post-summer reflection session in September 2019. In this way, we can prompt critical reflection at multiple points along students’ learning journey and assess ethical reasoning over time in relation to “beyond the classroom” experiences among several cohorts of students.

To further enhance our program, this year we will offer even more hands-on workshops so that students can think through their particular contexts before beginning their summers of engagement. For example, Professor Nina Johnson (Sociology) will be leading students through a workshop where they will learn how to find demographic data about U.S. neighborhoods and compare where they are from to where they will be going to critically reflect. Additionally, several of last-year’s grantees will be participating in the training and sharing what they learned from being students in the field. Finally, to ascertain if/how our student preparation and training makes a difference in the communities they work alongside, we are administering a Community Impact Survey. Conducted annually, this will allow us to keep our finger on the pulse of community perception— above and beyond the kinds of continual conversations we already have with community partners.

As we have continued to refine our process for training summer grantees for ethical engagement, we have seen a change in campus culture as our students and faculty are learning from and growing with each other and broader global communities.


**This prompt was informed by the work of Mary Gentile (2010), “A Tale of Two Stories,” Giving Voice to Values, and Dr. Edelbach (2001) “Procedure for Analyzing Ethical Dilemmas,” IDSC 252, Society, Ethics and Technology, The College of New Jersey, www.tcnj.edu/~set/mw-steps.htm

Jennifer Magee is the Associate Director of the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility where she advises individuals and groups of students striving to create social impact through innovative projects. Jennifer has taught peace and conflict study courses for Antioch McGregor University, Kennesaw State University, and Swarthmore College.

Katie Price is the Associate Director for Co-Curricular Programming and Outreach Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility.In addition to her work at the Lang Center, she teaches courses in English, Environmental Studies, and Peace and Conflict Studies; she publishes critical, creative, and other types of writing; and serves as Interviews Editor for the online magazine Jacket2.

*Thanks to Eric Hartman for inviting us to expand upon the remarks we made at the 105th Annual Meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in Atlanta, GA on January 24, 2019 in a session titled “Models and Methods of Ethical Engagement.” See other posts resulting from that presentation here: 

Ethical global engagement: What do we avoid, what do we do, and how do we evaluate it? 

Different languages, shared values: Partnering across campus for ethical global engagement. 

And if you’re interested in more discussion, dialogue, and critical reflection on ethical global engagement – at home and abroad – join The Globalsl Network and Clemson University at the 6th Global Service-Learning Summit, November 3 – 5, 2019. 

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