By Kaylesh Ramu and David Hoffman
Given the rancorous tone of current public debate and the gridlock in government, college students are understandably skeptical about politics and public life. Our polarized legislators seem unable to discuss issues with civility, and policy only seems to be made when one party has a supermajority and compromise is unnecessary.
This pessimistic view may be the received wisdom, but we see reasons for hope on many college campuses. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, students are helping lead the way to a new kind of politics that bridges difference and strengthens communities.
One team of Jewish and Muslim students worked together with administrators to bring more kosher and halal options to campus eateries. Other teams are working with campus partners to redesign spaces, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourage healthy lifestyle choices and boost campus spirit. The Student Government Association long ago leapt beyond the “let’s pretend” model of student government to become a catalyst for students’ creativity and engagement and a national model for sparking innovation. Instead of treating students as constituents to be served and then solicited at election time, UMBC‘s student government recognizes them as people with differing views and backgrounds whose talents and passions can be brought together for the common good.
On a campus with UMBC’s diversity, disagreements are inevitable. The work of building partnerships and allocating scarce resources can be messy and complicated. This is where “politics” comes in: not as a dirty word for the power-seeking tactics of political elites, but as a set of skills everyone can use to find common ground and get things done. The kind of generative politics practiced at UMBC, supported by a culture that celebrates innovation and resourcefulness, brings faculty, staff, students, alumni and community partners together to envision alternative futures and solve problems.
Indeed, a growing chorus of voices is calling for greater civic engagement in higher education to help more students build these skills. The influential report, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” issued earlier this year by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, urges institutions to look beyond conventional civic engagement efforts focused on voting and voluntary community service. Although both are important, the authors say, “even together they are insufficient to offset the civic erosion we are experiencing.” Instead, schools should help students learn complex civic skills through experience, using strategies such as deliberative dialogues, service-learning and collective problem-solving.
Another new report, “Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Roadmap and Call to Action,” published by the U.S. Department of Education, argues that the nation’s return on its investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in students’ education must be measured not just by students’ productive employment but also their capacity to work together to “solve collective problems creatively and collaboratively.” The report calls on schools to treat civic education and engagement as “essential parts of the core academic mission” rather than relegating them to the sidelines, and to pursue forms of engagement that are “more ambitious and participatory than in the past.”
Two promising new projects are about to carry these ideas forward in exciting ways. At UMBC, we recently launched BreakingGround, a campus-wide initiative to embed opportunities for civic learning and collaborative problem-solving even more broadly and deeply in our curriculum and co-curricular activities. BreakingGround features a new website (breakingground.umbc.edu) where we can share our stories, discuss issues and find new connections.
This article originally appeared on www.baltimoresun.com
By Kelly Cyr
I started volunteering at the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS) in the fall of my sophomore year in college. I was enrolled in the 096 Practicum, and picked BARCS as the site to get my 30 hours of service. I attended an orientation at the site in September, but due to a short amount of dog walking trainers and conflicts between my schedule and theirs, I wasn’t able to start volunteering on my own until November. Because of this, I was stressed out trying to cram my 30 hours into a month. The site also didn’t benefit from regular service on my part throughout the semester, because I had to cram it all into one month.
During the fall of my junior year, one of the Shriver vans became free on Saturdays and was offered to me to drive students to BARCS (prior to this, transportation had never been provided to the shelter). I agreed to drive students, and the site allowed me to train the UMBC students to walk the dogs there. Because I was now able to train students to walk the dogs and provided transportation for them once a week, students were able to get their training in earlier and could volunteer on their own for a longer period of time. This benefitted students because they no longer had to worry about getting into trainings in time and having to cram their 30 hours into the last month of the semester. It also allowed students who don’t have their own transportation to be able to volunteer at the shelter. It benefitted BARCS because they now had about 8 volunteers committed to coming to the shelter once a week and able to volunteer for the entire semester.
BARCS is now one of the most popular sites for UMBC students to do service at. I now drive about 18 students to the site two days a week. I’ve streamlined my trainings so that I can get students volunteering on their own as quickly as possible. This has been very helpful for the site. Every day I bring students there, all of the dogs get walked and most if not all of the cats get socialized, which greatly increases their chances of being adopted.
I am very glad to be able to bring this many students to the shelter. BARCS is doing great work in improving the welfare of animals in Baltimore City, and I love that I can be a part of that. I also enjoy knowing that the students who come to BARCS are being educated on the importance of improving the welfare of animals. This experience has greatly improved my leadership skills and confidence in my ability to create change on my campus and in my community.