With majors and minors, sports, club participation, after-school jobs and internships vying for space on most college schedules, students can easily become isolated from the town or city where they are studying.
But Caryn McTighe Musil, vice president for diversity, equity and global initiatives for the American Association of Colleges and Universities, says students can still be coaxed into civic service.
Musil breathed new life into discussion of “town-gown” relations Friday during the annual gathering of Mary Baldwin University’s Advisory Board of Visitors and Parents Council — two influential volunteer groups that offer guidance on the future direction of the institution.
“It is dangerous for our democracy if we do not educate our students about how to be responsible citizens,” Musil said during a day-long symposium that also involved panels of local volunteers, women in local government and a student and a faculty member from the college’s Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership.
Civic concerns have become as important as the traditional academic mission of higher education and must be built into the curriculum to be effective, Musil said. The topic of how to combine service and learning is commanding increasing attention on campuses nationwide.
“It will force some people to change the way they think about instruction and requirements,” she said, citing as an example a professor she met who taught a course about lead. The class’s exploration ranged from learning lead’s chemical composition to testing lead levels in a nearby water source. “When students learn it that way, they want to know everything about the subject,” she added.
Musil is also the director of the AACU’s Program on the Status of Women, which provides national leadership on issues concerning women in higher education, and she serves as senior vice president of the organization.
Her foundation in women’s studies began in graduate school at Northwestern University and continued when she became a faculty member at LaSalle University. Musil was committed to helping LaSalle redefine its mission when the school became co-educational after more than a century as an all-male institution.
Colleges and universities around the nation have responded to a call for civic engagement on campus in myriad ways: Some have instituted required community service credits, others have gone so far as to make community interaction a significant part of basic academic classes.
“I’m delighted that the college wants to form meaningful, lasting, useful connections with the community and that it expects its students to embrace this movement,” said advisory board member Judy Mosedale, who is also a staff member of the Staunton Performing Arts Center.
At present, Mary Baldwin’s efforts at civic involvement are the work of individual faculty and staff members who offer opportunities for interaction in their classes or through organized activities. The advisory groups will look at those successful programs to move the college toward a more comprehensive approach.
“I am pleased that Mary Baldwin has set this as a priority,” said M. Louise Scott, a member of the advisory board of visitors and former member of the parents council. “The desire to involve students exists already. The difference we hope to make is that it will be more intentional and systematic.”
Parents council representative Janet Royal said she almost wishes her daughter, a senior at Mary Baldwin, had another year at the school to continue to develop her citizenship skills.
“I can definitely see this emphasis used as a way to recruit students,” she said.
National Projects that Link Liberal Education and Civic Engagement from Peer Review, a publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities
- Campus Compact( www.campuscompact.org ) — An organization of close to 850 college and university presidents committed to the civic purposes of higher education. The group encourages students to develop citizenship skills and values and assists faculty who want to integrate public engagement into their teaching and research.
- The Center for Liberal Education and Civic Engagement( www.aacu.org/civic_engagement ) — A partnership between the AAC&U and Campus Compact, the center was designed to spark and develop new ideas, research and collaborations aimed at campus civic engagement.
- Democracy Matters( www.democracymatters.org ) — An organization with campus-based chapters around the country that informs and engages college students and communities in their efforts to strengthen democracy.