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How Can We Fulfill the Mission of Higher Education?

Apr 22 2010

By Adrienne McNally
A quick Internet search on college mission statements reveals a common thread among colleges’ purposes: civic engagement.  Institutions of higher education frequently identify that they would like their graduates to contribute positively to society, engage in public service, develop a sense of what it means to be a member of a community, and address problems in their state, nation, and world.  New York Institute of Technology is no different.  One of the main points of NYIT’s mission is to “support applications-oriented research that benefits the larger world.”  It can sometimes seem difficult to incorporate civic education into regimented courses, but I took on the challenge during my instruction of a section of the Fall 2009 Freshmen Seminar, “College Success.”

NYIT’s freshmen seminar is like most institutions’ freshmen seminars in that the instructors strive to help their students become familiar with campus resources and services, engage with other students and their professors, and develop habits that will help them successfully complete their degree programs.  The course has a rigid structure that makes it difficult to change the curriculum significantly.  While the course is only 2 credits (meeting for 2 hours per week), the students must read one book (in addition to the 2 required textbooks), write a paper, take online quizzes, write journals, attend 7 out-of-class events, and complete numerous surveys and trainings.  In addition, instructors are required to cover 10 topics related to academic success and personal development while accommodating 1-hour visits from 6 student services departments.

It seemed like a daunting task to add any topic to this curriculum, no matter how crucial to student development.  Working with a colleague and my supervisor, we found small ways to introduce civic engagement to our students and took on a service project.  We began in the second class by defining and discussing what it means to be a citizen, what responsibilities students have as citizens, and how they can contribute as a citizen.  Then we used this as an overriding theme to the class that we connected with the course requirements and the service project.

Journals: I used journals to help students think about civic engagement and their roles in society and government.  The students were required to attend the NYIT President’s Welcome Address and I asked them to talk about what they learned and why they thought it was important that they went.  If they didn’t go, I asked them how that decision will affect them at NYIT.  In another assignment, the students created a list of things they love and hate about NYIT.  For the things that they didn’t like, I asked them to talk about what they can do to change them to make them start thinking about actions they can take as citizens of NYIT.

Diversity: One required topic of the course is diversity.  This fit in well with civic engagement because it allowed me to educate the class about diversity issues on Long Island and the students had the opportunity to talk about their experiences.  The discussion leant itself well to asking the students to talk about what they could do now that they recognize what the issues are and they have accurate information instead of rumors or assumptions from their parents, friends, and media.

 Required reading: NYIT required all freshmen to read When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka, a story of one Japanese-American family’s experiences during World War II.  It documents their journey to the US internment camps and their time spent there.  This was an excellent book to connect with civic engagement.  Some topics we discussed in conjunction with the book were the differences between the US and Japan at the time with regards to separation of church and state.  I asked students what they would have done as US citizens to support or oppose US government actions, how they would have reacted in situations the characters find themselves in and what actions they would have taken.  I used one journal entry to further explore these issues: If you had been present during this time, how would you have felt watching Japanese-Americans being evacuated?  What would have been influencing you (media, parents, friends)?  What actions would you have taken to support what you felt?

 Current events: We were also able to make the required reading more relevant to students by making connections with current events.  During the semester there was a case of a soldier who refused to fight for the US because he disagreed with the reasons we went to war.  This was a perfect opportunity to tie civic engagement to the book and current news topics.  What would they do if they were a soldier during WWII and were ordered to work at a Japanese-American internment camp?  Would they serve?  Would they risk a court martial by refusing to serve? 

 Extra credit: The extra credit assignment was a question from Richard Battistoni’s Civic Engagement Across the Curriculum.  The question required the student to think about how diversity, community, and service are related to power, privilege, and access as they related to the student’s identity.   It asked them to think critically about when they have felt privileged or excluded due to their identity and then connect it to the people we were helping through our service project.  It also asked them to think about how the people we were serving perceive them.  This assignment was very challenging for the students who chose to take it on, which is why I chose it for extra credit.  I was impressed with the level at which the students were able to think about these topics and I learned a lot about what some of them have experienced.

Service project: Although we could not do a major service project because of the restrictions of the course, we did do a campus-wide food drive.  To kick off the drive we hosted a speaker from a local food bank to deliver a workshop called Hunger 101.  This presentation taught students about hunger on Long Island and also had students participate in a hunger simulation so they could experience what it’s like to not be able to afford food. 

During the simulation exercise each student was given an identity with income, expenses, and money left over for food.  The students visited the bank to get money, went to the grocery store, and had the option of visiting the soup kitchen, getting food stamps, and filling out forms for further assistance.  During the exercise the students experienced the frustrations of being hungry.  For instance, the bank would close and they wouldn’t be able to get money, the store would refuse to sell to them, they wouldn’t qualify for food stamps even though they couldn’t afford enough food for their families, the forms for assistance were written in gibberish and they couldn’t fill them out correctly. 

The service project helped us tie all of our discussions together and illustrated to the students what it truly means to be a citizen and different ways to practice civic engagement.  We had discussed their reactions and actions to historical events, current events, and their roles at NYIT.  Through the hunger simulation students could broaden these concepts to their local communities.  They learned that although programs exist to help the hungry, they aren’t working at the level that they need to be.  Also, our food drive was nice and our donations would help some hungry families, but we aren’t really solving the hunger problem.  This lead to how, as citizens, we can work to solve problems through public policies and participating in government.  This first year course provided a viable forum to introduce the civic engagement purpose of higher education.  The challenge now is to sustain and reinforce this responsibility. 

Author: amy_bravo