Nearly 600 higher education professionals gathered in Baltimore, MD, earlier this month for the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Conference. Service Year Alliance helped to sponsor this conference, hosted by The American Democracy Project (ADP), The Democracy Commitment (TDC), and NASPA for those committed to advancing the civic engagement movement in higher education.
Among the central questions of this conference were how do we build the civic ethos of campus; how do we foster civic literacy and skill building as a goal for every student; how do we integrate civic inquiry within the majors and general education; how do we cultivate civic action as lifelong practice; and how do we increase civic agency. According to CLDE’s definition of civic agency, this “involves the capacities of citizens to work collaboratively across differences like partisan ideology, faith traditions, income, geography, race, and ethnicity to address common challenges, solve problems and create common ground.”
Service Year Alliance’s presentation with Averett University focused on service years as a pedagogy to increase civic agency while integrating civic inquiry within programs of study across the curriculum. Participants were encouraged to think about how a year of service embedded in the curriculum could build on the existing service-learning and civic engagement infrastructure and community partnerships. Examples of this may include leveraging a service year to prepare students studying education for careers in the classroom or giving students interested in health professions or law the opportunity to explore career paths before graduate school. This approach is critical to better preparing students for their next steps, addressing community needs, and moving students towards on-time graduation. This can be especially powerful if a college or university has existing internship/externship, practicum, or capstone requirements.
Service year programs also can also be utilized to increase civic agency. At Service Year Alliance, we refer to this work as “building bridges.” Coming together around a common cause with individuals different of different backgrounds can help build understanding across sometimes disparate political or religious ideologies, cultural differences, and racial and socio-economic divides. A common misconception about service year programs is that it is only an option for those that can afford to do it. Service Year Alliance requires that certified service year organizations provide a stipend or living allowance to service year corps members. This allows those who are interested to participate regardless of their background, a key strategy to ensuring that service year corps members reflect the diversity in America.