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Encouraging civic responsibility in students a goal of K-State program

By Keener A. Tippin II

 

Civic responsibility could best be summed up in one word: Stewardship. The moral, legal or mental accountability of each of us to leave our communities in a better condition than we found them. To achieve that, civic responsibility demands civic participation.

Since 1987, the goal of the Community Service Program at Kansas State University is for all students to leave K-State with a clear understanding of their mantle of responsibility as citizens, being ready to practice that responsibility -- in whatever community they choose to reside -- as volunteers, as parents, as professionals, etc.

According to program director Carol Gould, K-State's program was one of the early campus-based community service programs in the nation -- one of the initial 32 funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education. Gould said there were multiple purposes then and now for the program, but the primary purpose is to have students understand their civic responsibility in a learning environment outside the classroom "so that they're learning in a real situation instead of a theoretical one."

"We think, as part of higher education and part of what students do while they're here at K-State is some intentional work on understanding civic responsibility," Gould said. "Now that doesn't mean the service learning can't take place as part of a class. We have lots of classes at K-State that have service learning, the actual service experience as part of the class itself."

According to Gould, these classes must have structured learning objectives that are set prior to students being sent out on community service experiences. In addition, some type of reflection that enables students to process the experience and its meaning must be built into the curriculum.

An estimated 500-700 students per year are directly involved in the community service program itself. Gould estimates more than 25 percent of the K-State student body is involved in some sort of community service, either through the leadership studies program or other classes. She admits that number may be a conservative estimate.

The program itself began with "Kansas Teams" spreading out across the Sunflower State to conduct service projects in various communities. Although students still go out in communities to do projects -- tutoring in the traditional program and in the national "America Reads, America Counts" program; school-based assistance; after school and with non-profits, etc. -- Gould said Kansas Teams has evolved more into internships. The program, however, still sends out student teams abroad and teams that go on alternative spring and winter breaks outside the state to work with volunteer agencies in a very intentional way to understand a specific issue.

"If they're working in a homeless shelter, they're learning about homelessness while they are there," Gould said. "what the causes are and how we can develop more effective solutions."

The program has grown by leaps and bounds over the past five years, according to Gould, providing support and services that many of these small communities cannot afford or do not have access to.

"We sometimes think that because they're students the work that they do is not as valuable and the minute they graduate it becomes valuable," Gould said. "That is really an unfair characterization. These students have a huge impact fiscally because they are doing work that small communities cannot afford to pay professionals and private firms to do. But I think the bigger impact we see is energy and ideas; helping communities see their future in a different way. We hear all the time, 'you know, we had a team five years ago and since then this and this and this has happened' and they give the team credit for that kind of thing."

Over the years the program has had architecture teams and classes doing streetscapes, park plans, etc. Gould emphasizes that these are student projects and not ones taking work away from or replacing professional firms. She recalls a project led several years ago by former A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communication director Carol Oukrop that assisted a small northwest Kansas community start a volunteer newspaper when the publisher of its lone newspaper retired.

Another request last year was to help a community with a tourism project in which students would research, write scripts and produce audio tapes for people to use for car tours around the area and region. Unfortunately, the project did not come to fruition.

But in spite of their good intentions, Gould said it is sometimes a difficult job to sell communities on these teams of students.

"Yes," Gould said with a laugh. "It used to be harder than it is now but I think the more realistic concern is can students give a community a product that they really are going to be able to use? Is this really the kind of quality that a community needs in order to implement something?"

Gould said that over the years the program has proven that students, under the guidance of a faculty person who always works with them, create things that they don't even think are possible.

"The products we get from student teams and classes going out are far and away above anything they might produce sitting around a lab table or a drawing board in a classroom simply because they care," Gould said. "They're interacting with people and that changes it. They get excited about this stuff and when it's a real project they put their hearts into it in a way that I don't think happens in the classroom."

In return, students benefit as well, putting what they are learning in the classroom to work in communities, whether it's as a tutor or on one of the student teams.

"We've seen students change their majors or change their career direction," Gould said. "Not because we're pushing them that way but because they get out there and they get started working on something and discover what they're good at; what their passion is. We think that educationally, this experience helps either solidify a professional direction or helps a student find a different direction, if that's what they need to do."

According to Gould, this volunteerism helps leadership, problem solving, decision-making and communication skills.

"One of the most important things that happens is that students interact with a group of people different from themselves -- whether it's racially, ethnically, economically, socially," Gould said. "A lot of times these students from our larger communities have never been in a small community. They have a whole lot of stereotypes about what's going on there and so we help to change some of those.

"I think that one of the most valuable things is just getting people out of their little box that they're comfortable in and putting them in a different setting. I think that probably hits most of it."

Gould said K-State itself gets a number of things out of the volunteerism and the program on a number of different levels, the most important being in regards to its civic mission.

"We're a land grant institution," Gould said. "That's part of our history. But I think what we understand now about higher education is these institutions all have a civic mission and a civic purpose. The old ivory tower thing is no longer acceptable. Communities won't put up with that.

"Communities want the partnerships with universities and so having our students and our faculty out in communities helps us to fulfill that civic purpose. We become a model of the citizenship that we are trying to preach all of the time. But that's not the way universities have always been."

On a secondary, practical level Gould believes universities nationwide are being held accountable now by citizens, legislatures and funding agencies, much more so than 15 years ago when she first started. Programs such as this are one way to show those stake holders that universities are giving something back to their communities -- a return that is far, far greater than the investment.

Many have opined about a drop in the amount of volunteerism of teens and young adults over the years, but Gould said after 17 years she hasn't seen too much of a change. Gould believes that the rising cost of higher education coupled with a decrease in grants and available loans has forced more and more students to work to finance college and the expenses associated with it. A second trend she believes has impacted students is the movement toward professionalism in majors, which in turn leads to a very narrow track that students have to stay on in order to graduate.

"There's not much leeway," Gould said. "There's not much time for them to experiment. A business major might not have time to take Spanish or an anthropology course or a sociology course -- beyond those which are required - unless they have multiple majors. I think that is a trend that has restricted students' time."

Winter 2003