A look at 20 years of Campus Compact from a "20 something" student perspective

Theme: Embedding Engagement

Leah Orwig
Recent Graduate
Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, IL
Constituent Group:
Students / Recent Graduates
As Campus Compact celebrates its 20th birthday this year, I find similar patterns of growth when comparing its history with my own twenty-something years. During the late 1980s my civic life and the life of Campus Compact began our development in close timing. By the early 1990s, Campus Compact and I were learning the importance of combining service in the classroom and we had not even been introduced yet. Upon entering college, I was properly introduced to the inspiring world of Campus Compact through the Raise Your Voice student campaign. Today as I advance my education and refine my professional scope in graduate school, Campus Compact is evaluating its past to advance the best path for the future. I feel honored to have the opportunity to share my experiences and ideas on how Campus Compact, higher education, and all those "20 somethings" out there like me can grow. The experiences and ideas I will share will address my thoughts on how my cohorts feel about civic engagement, how student voices, student leadership, and service-learning can play a more integral and powerful part in the secondary educational system.

How students view civic engagement

In the late 1980s, Campus Compact was formed to encourage students to get involved in their community. Barely a new student, I also felt the push to volunteer in the community, but from my "civically-minded" grandparents, as Robert Putman would call them, rather than my school (Putman, 1995). While mom and dad were at work, my grandparents and I would often sort cans at the local food pantry and distribute birthday cupcakes at the retirement home. These tasks were the little things my grandparents and I did that fostered a stronger relationship with each other and the community. By the early 1990s, Campus Compact focused on combining service projects with academics to increase student awareness about how life is connected to the community. At this time, I was learning how to write in cursive and used my new skill to write letters to soldiers in Desert Storm. Even though I did not fully understand what was going on in the world at that time, writing a letter to a soldier made me feel connected to the war. The late 1990s saw Campus Compact's initial attempts to motivate all members of the universities and colleges, not just the students and faculty/staff, to better their neighborhoods. While in high school, I too encouraged my classmates to better their community by adopting grandparents at the retirement home. I also persuaded them to help me organize a canned food drive for the local food pantry, which really seemed to make them feel more connected as a class and valuable to the community. These civic-minded experiences in my life shaped me in a way to understand and appreciate the need for community service that was characteristic of my grandparents' generation. Also, from my parents who say they "got the sixties," I learned the importance of questioning authority. Through their many debates with friends on current events, I witnessed and later participated in the process of critically analyzing an event or policy to find the fairest option for all. Serving your community and fighting injustice is the challenging task for my generation whose societal norm is expecting things instantaneously while expending little effort. People today, especially those from my generation, a generation of ipods, instant messenger, and myspace, have lost the art of developing strong and genuine relationships with themselves and others. It gets easier and easier to lose ourselves in numerous deadlines, societal trends, and the "culturally individualistic" urgencies that shape our lives. Whether it is a professional or personal relationship, we lack the energy and strength to connect and work with one another. One of the messages I received from the Gamaliel Foundation's weeklong training in July 2006, was to gain the energy needed to connect with others, a person needs to specifically define their self-interest. If we do not reflect on how our experiences affect our lives, it is hard to develop a strong sense of who we are and who we want to become, or in Gamaliel terms: self-interest. This includes civic engagement. We need to slow down and take the time to get to know ourselves again and discover what moves us, so that we will have the energy and interest to invest the time to help others.

Student Voice and Student Leadership

As the century turned, Campus Compact launched the Raise Your Voice Campaign to educate students on how to develop their civic life and to support and recognize what involved students were accomplishing. As I entered college, I knew I wanted to continue all the volunteer work that I loved to do as a kid in the community. When I became familiar with Campus Compact through college volunteering, I realized how connected government policies were to my everyday life and how the little civic-minded tasks in my everyday life could also influence government policies. Through the Raise Your Voice student campaign I learned how to be a student leader and how to develop and strengthen my student voice. Throughout campus I began to see a distinct difference among those who were involved, who were strong leaders, who were strong voices on campus, and those who were not. The peers that were always involved seemed to have a better sense of self and were more comfortable in becoming involved in the community. To me they seemed to have reflected a lot on who they were and how they fit in the world. They knew their self-interest and where they wanted to take their life. By knowing their self-interest they were confident in their ability and had the energy to do seemingly difficult tasks to some students. For example one student who I have worked with, primarily started volunteering through the Student Leadership Development Program on campus in a heavily populated Latino community. As a Mexican-American herself she related to the needs and issues and felt drawn to join in with the fight for a better community. With her self-interest in place this young student had the energy to mingle with students, faculty, staff, administration, and community leaders around the topic of Latino needs in the Metro-East area. Seeing her in other roles other than a student at public meetings and volunteer projects, these students, faculty, staff, administration, and community leaders were able to recognize her as more than a student and were more willing to invest their time into working along side her toward a common goal. This student is now the leader of the Latino Round Table, which consists of local representatives of higher education, area school districts, health and mental health agencies, social service agencies, religious groups, as well as various business leaders, media outlets, and area lawyers. Those peers, who felt civic engagement was unnecessary or unappealing, often seemed to have less of an understanding of the need for community service and less of an understanding of their own self-interest. However for some of these peers, self-reflection occurred through a service-learning class. They were required to do volunteer work for a number of hours and then write an integrative piece combining the knowledge learned in class with their community experience. These experiences challenged my fellow classmates to consider another perspective. In the end they often sought out more opportunities to volunteer or joined a lobbying group headed toward Springfield. This teaching method of combining service with learning appeals to those students who are kinesthetic learners (learn through actively doing), and it also makes students own what they are learning. I think of systems theory when I think of this type of learning. The more invested students are in their role of being a student/volunteer within the system of education and the community, the more they feel a part of the issues that affect the system and ultimately themselves. By showing students that they are a valued part of their systems they will be more willing to take ownership and work toward improving each system.

More Engaged and More Committed to Service-Learning and Civic Engagement

Now in the 20th year of Campus Compact, and my first year of graduate school, I have begun to realize the full potential of the inspiring and empowering network created by the nexus of civic engagement, service learning and higher education. I feel that everyone should have the opportunity to realize and experience this network, but they should begin the process earlier in their education. Combining civic development with cognitive development would ensure everyone has the opportunity to realize the power of this network, and the power they gain from knowing where they came from and where they plan on going. Just as students have different styles of learning, individuals have different approaches to citizenship, and we need to provide a variety of experiences to give students the opportunity to find their path to becoming a good citizen. According to Misa and Anderson (2005) there are three different concepts of a "good citizen" that individuals work towards. These concepts consist of individuals that "feel personally responsible for the community, those that are participatory in the civic and social life of the community, and those who are justice oriented who find the cause of social injustices in order to address them within the community" (Misa & Anderson, 2005). In finding out what motivates them and what they consider is their citizenship style, students can develop the skills they need to continue their education, to be competitive in the job market and developing a strong civic life. I urge Campus Compact, students, faculty, staff, and administrators to trust what we have learned about the benefits of service-learning and civic engagement, and build from these strengths. We need to take the risk of committing to the integration of service-learning and civic engagement in every aspect of higher education. Currently, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is proposing a general education program that requires students to complete a service-learning component which will ignite students' sense of power and identity. I also challenge administration, faculty, and staff everywhere to self-reflect on if it is in their agenda to encourage students, faculty, and staff to foster a civic life? If civic involvement is not on agenda of institutional leaders, we need to understand what is on their agenda, and show how engagement fits with their self-interest. This refers to another message I learned at the Gamaliel Foundation training, one that encourages leaders to invest time into understanding the self-interest of others so that they may develop a convergence of self-interests. When this happens each person feels connected to the other and is motivated to work toward a goal that they both share, which ultimately increases their power to get things done in the classroom, in the community, and beyond.

The Little Things

These are large tasks, but if we start small and commit to investing and replenishing ourselves, we will have the energy to invest in others. Jane Roberts, the co-founder of 34 Million Friends of the Women of the World, offered me this advice when I felt overwhelmed by all the issues I wanted to address in the world: "You do what you can do, in harmony with who you are." I felt that my efforts were not enough, but she reassured me that the little things I was already doing as a student represented what I could do right now; later, I can do more. These little civic tasks that we all can participate in make the difficult and large civic duties a manageable task for many rather than a large struggle for one.

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