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
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
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.