By Bill Flores, Former President, University of Houston-Downtown
With 10 panels and interactive workshops (up from three sessions last year), the Higher Education Learning Path at this year’s conference reflects the growing interest of higher education institutions in developing volunteerism and service. Developing tomorrow’s leaders through civic engagement served as a common theme for the Learning Path workshops.
In the first day’s morning session, “Core Values: Creating Sustainable Programs and Growing a Generation of Leaders,” Angela Oxford, director of the University of Arkansas Center for Community Engagement, urged participants to “know your core values and weave them into everything you do… Guess what? When you do that, students learn those values, make them their own, and began referring to those values when they speak with other students and community partners. … They take your message out to the world.”
Later that day, Paul Whalen of the University of Central Florida described the Community Service Ambassador Program at his campus, which “creates a culture of service tied directly to teacher education” and helps both the ambassadors and the mentees succeed “not only in their majors, but also in their careers.” Tracey Farr of Pellissippi State Community College described the importance of community partnerships, as not just “placements” but also, “as places where students learn through first-hand, real-world experience.” She emphasized the importance of AmeriCorps VISTAs in leading service learning projects on her campus and in the community.
Kimberly Hutchings, assistant director for student engagement at Xavier College, woke everyone up in her Tuesday morning session with music from various generations (from Boomer to Gen Z). She explained, Gen Z – who are just starting to enter colleges across America – have “only an 8 second attention span” and toggle between five screens and 10 apps and websites, “So, you have to wake them up and keep them active.” Kimberly reviewed the “3 Ds to Engaging College Volunteer Students in Community Service” – Direct, Diverse, and Different – explaining, “To get students involved you have to understand their mindset and understand how they see and interact with the world to change it.”
Amanda Finch of the University of Florida’s Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement focused on developing global citizens through alternative service. Amanda presented a social change model to engage students and prepare them for service “by building leadership skills through active citizenship.” She explained that as colleges and universities recruit more first generation students, “You will find that many students go back home to the communities they serve. They know those communities and the problems of those neighborhoods, because they live there. … We provide them with skills and understanding to make a real difference in the world.”
In another workshop, Crystal Coats, director of civic and campus engagement at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, noted that many students ask, “What do I do now?” She explained, “They want to make an impact in all levels of politics and government. They want to change the world, right now! We want them to be engaged all of their lives. … We help them to develop skills and actionable strategies, while never giving up on their big dreams of changing the world.”
Sarah Perkins, assistant director for civic engagement at Georgia Institute of Technology shared tips of how community partners can find students as volunteers and interns. She understands their frustration, “The university can be a maze. … We want you to know how to find students, engage them as volunteers, and retain them to help your programs and so that you can help them develop as future leaders.”
In an interactive session, participants engaged in a pubic deliberation on the civic dimensions of higher education, discussing the role of higher education in promoting civic engagement and democracy. Facilitated by Amanda Buberger, assistant director of Tulane University’s Center for Public Service, Windy Lawrence, director of the Center for Public Deliberation at the University of Houston-Downtown, Noël Bezette-Flores, advising manager at Houston Community College, Central Campus, and John Locke former UHD student government president, the session offered recommendations on ways to improve engagement and service learning and civic participation through public deliberation, where students and community members with different viewpoints and backgrounds work together to solve problems in their community. Tracey Farr, who presented Monday afternoon in another panel, noted, “We need to get feedback from our students and from our community partners. We can learn from them to improve what we do.” Noël Bezette-Flores summarized the session, “We learned through the table discussions that the combination of service-learning, community engagement, and public deliberation when blended together, create a potent recipe for developing students who become a powerful and engaged citizenry.”
In another workshop, Christy Venable, program director at NYC Service, described the goal of doubling the number of Service Year youth participating in projects in New York, “they are changed by their year of service for the rest of their lives.” Lara Dreier of College Possible, in another workshop, described how they use 250 AmeriCorps members in an innovative “near-peer mentors” program to have recent graduates and second and third year students guide first year students, as “They have been there and can help first-year students through the rough spots.”
On the last day, Justin Fitzgerald of the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement at the University of South Florida, and Rachel DuBois, assistant director of Career Services at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service discussed the changing world of higher education with the need to get make sure students get hired. Justin stated the challenge, “As more states implement performance-based funding models, they want to see not only that you graduate students, but that students get good-paying jobs.” Volunteerism, service-learning and internship help prepare them for a changing world. Rachel explained, “This makes them valuable to employers and helps them get those better paying jobs.”
At a lunch with many of the panelists, I gave a brief history of the Higher Education Learning Path, which began as an afternoon track at the 2015 conference in Houston and became a formal Learning Path at the 2017 conference in Seattle. After last year’s conference, Katrina Rogers, president of Fielding Graduate University, and I began co-editing a book with conference participants and college presidents, many of who participate in the Kettering Foundation’s meetings. I invited panelists to submit essays for the book, “Citizenship, Democracy, and Civic Engagement: Reclaiming the Civic Purpose of Higher Education,” which will be published by Lexington Books in March 2019, and includes a forward by Neil Bush, board chair for Points of Light, and a chapter by David Mathews, CEO of the Kettering Foundation.
I reminded panelists, there are 20 million students in college and only about a third of that number volunteer. We need more active participation from higher education to build those numbers, strengthen partnerships, and ensure students are better prepared to be the leaders of tomorrow. Developing students as engaged citizens is vital to America’s future and to its democracy.
A highlight of the conference for many of us was the Opening Plenary, which featured students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Their energy, enthusiasm, and determination inspired us all. Emma Gonzalez expressed their goal, “No more children should die in any school in America.” The Parkland students have sparked a movement to end gun violence. Many of them will enter college next year, along with many thousands of students from all over the country inspired by their actions. If the future of our country is in the hands of the next generation, there is great hope. The nation will be in good hands.
Bill Flores is former president of the University of Houston-Downtown. He and wife, Noël Bezette-Flores, were recognized with the Daily Point of Light Award in 2015 and co-chaired the Higher Education Learning Path in 2015 and in 2017 with Katrina Rogers. He served as path lead at the 2018 conference in Atlanta.