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Skidmore sharpens its goal of turning out civic-minded graduates
by Maryann Teale Snell
“What is college for? It was once quite clear that higher education
primarily served a public good, that the creation and transfer of
knowledge was vital to civil society,” says sociology professor
David Karp. “Today, the emphasis of higher education is on its
private benefits—the preparation of students to be successful in the
workplace.” But Goal III of Skidmore’s current strategic plan states:
“We will prepare every Skidmore student to make the choices required of an informed, responsible citizen at home and in the world.” For this to become a reality, Karp says, “it is necessary to both educate and motivate students” to embrace social responsibility and become engaged in their communities. It also requires a steady partnership between the offices of academic affairs and student affairs. Faculty should in turn be able to “articulate the larger, public purpose of their discipline,” he adds, and address how they will guide students in reaching those goals.
Karp, who as interim associate dean of student affairs is charged with helping to lead the infusion of civic engagement throughout the disciplines, offers these suggestions for making it happen:
• civic-learning coursework, which introduces students to scholarly perspectives on citizenship, including theories and research relevant to solving social and environmental problems
• service-learning coursework, which includes community service as an experiential learning technique to deepen understanding of course content, build skills in applying theory to practice, and develop students’ interest in social action and problem-solving
• community-based research, which includes collaborations with community partners to investigate and solve social, educational, and environmental problems
• cocurricular programs that develop the skills and dispositions of civic engagement—for example, student government, residential life, clubs and organizations, and volunteer work.
It may seem like a tall order, but Skidmore is poised to make it happen—in no small part because of student interest.
STUDENTS ARE INSPIRED TO BE INVOLVED
Many Skidmore undergrads have had some kind of community-service experience before they even set foot on campus—in fact, “care for others” and a demonstrated “spirit of learning and giving” are considerations in the college's admissions process.
“I cannot imagine my life without some type of community service,” says Sasha Diamond-Lenow ’08. She was president of her high school’s chapter of Amnesty International, among other things, but at Skidmore she has expanded her interests through campus clubs, the volunteer office, and the social-work department. Befriending a thirteen-year-old girl through Saratoga Mentoring, she says, “has given me an outlook on the Saratoga Springs community that I would have not gotten otherwise and has transformed me as a person.”
Forty hours of community service was a high-school graduation requirement for Becca Horton ’08. She took her project—raising awareness about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—a step further as a Skidmore government major, spending last summer in Israel for an applied workshop in politics and conflict resolution. In professor Beau Breslin and David Karp’s “Law and Society” course, which has a civic-engagement requirement, she was introduced to the concept of mediation. Now interning at Mediation Matters in Saratoga Springs and mediating regularly for small-claims and court-referred cases involving juveniles, Horton is determined to pursue a career in conflict management and resolution.
Ryan Greer ’08 was involved in two community service clubs in high school but says he’s been more committed at Skidmore. “The most satisfying and fulfilling actions are those that help others,” he says. “It sounds cliché, but it holds true for me.” As a board member of Benef-Action, Skidmore’s community-service club, Greer has helped rebuild houses in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and raised $15,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
When Shaila DeLea ’08 arrived on campus, she brought with her “a huge desire to make a difference.” She mentors a fourteen-year-old girl in Saratoga and says she relies on “inner motivation” to keep her invested in the work, which leaves her with “a huge feeling of accomplishment.”
Before enrolling at Skidmore, Nick Collins-Feay ’08 logged close to 1,000 hours with the Tukwila (Wash.) Fire Explorers. The medical training he received in that capacity inspired him to register for an EMT class, and now he’s one of several student volunteers on the Wilton Emergency Squad, serving about eighty-five square miles in Saratoga County. He works a minimum of twelve hours a week, driving an ambulance and assisting paramedics.
Rebecca Oring ’09 too was donating her time as a high-schooler, building homes for Habitat for Humanity, volunteering in a hospital pediatrics ward, and mentoring a minority student at the lower school. For the last two and a half years, the exercise-science major has spent Tuesday evenings at the Skidmore pool with Special Olympics athletes, motivating them during their workouts.
Even those who are new to volunteering have found it easy—and satisfying—to get involved at Skidmore. Soon after Holly Fried ’08 arrived on campus, someone recommended that she go to a Benef-Action meeting. She is now the club’s secretary. In Saratoga she has been a reading buddy and homework helper to elementary-school children and a mentor to an older child; she is also involved with the English Language Learners Program in Amsterdam, N.Y. Fried has helped organize several fundraisers for the program, including a winter-coat drive (more than 300 coats were distributed to Amsterdam students) and a Skidmore employee talent show for scholarship funding.
Students who work closely with community members point out the intrinsic value of making connections where you live and of deinsulating yourself from what a lot of students refer to as the “bubble.” Horton says, “Plenty of students, in their four years here, will not know a single person off-campus. And I think that is all wrong. How can you be prepared to enter a professional environment with no contact or relationships with people other than your peers and professors? You need to get to know the people who are living around you.”
SHOULD HIGHER ED PROMOTE PUBLIC SERVICE?
What is the role of higher education in promoting civic engagement and public service? Is it a college’s responsibility?
Economics professor Roy Rotheim, who holds the Quadracci Chair in Social Responsibility, says, “Focusing higher education only on the development of the individual mind perpetuates the myth that one succeeds and fails based on the merits of one’s own actions. The reality is that very few individuals succeed without the social context in which they perceive themselves as acting ‘freely.’” Rotheim believes there is a growing “awareness that we’re all in this together and that we cannot go it on our own, and for our educational system to reflect that reality is what we hope will occur.”
Joseph Kaifala ’08 agrees, saying, “What use is education if it is purely for individual development?” Having spearheaded a number of community-based efforts in global venues (via the International Affairs Club), Kaifala believes educational institutions are obligated to “give students the kind of education needed for the greater good of our communities.”
While Becca Horton believes it is students’ own responsibility to seek public-service opportunities,she is “troubled” by what she perceives as the college’s lack of emphasis on giving back to the community. “There should be more academic programs that stress civic engagement,” she says. “It should play a much more substantial role in students’ lives.”
“A significant part of higher learning,” suggests Nick Collins-Feay, is “learning how to be a good citizen. Much of our society is heavily reliant on those who feel a civic duty. It is absolutely the duty of the college to support and promote volunteerism and to promote civic accountability whenever possible.”
Ryan Greer is concerned that “character development is stifled” when education focuses simply on preparing students to produce in the global economy. He’d like to see a concerted effort to address Goal III of Skidmore’s strategic plan (for the full plan, click here) and has proposed some ideas of his own for facilitating civic engagement, including: Service Honors (a prestigious award that would be given to a small number of seniors, in recognition of their service efforts); an official cocurricular transcript that would track students’ extracurricular activities and internships; and civic engagement credit, similar to internship credit, for documented hours at service agencies. He has heard “criticism that community service shouldn’t be rewarded, because it’s supposed to be done simply out of the ‘goodness of one’s heart.’ I disagree with that premise,” he says. “Doing the right thing seems like exactly the reason to recognize someone.”
The college offers many awards that recognize students as good studiers, good leaders, and good athletes,” Greer says, “but not as good people. I truly think it’s the school’s responsibility to guide students into becoming members of society who contribute not just through our intellect and athleticism, but through our virtuous actions and broad experiences. Maybe the ‘value’ of service can’t be quantified, but the recognition of it certainly can be.”
IS SKIDMORE DOING ENOUGH?
In his research on civic engagement at Skidmore, David Karp found that of the 809 classes (excluding internships and independent studies) taught in fall 2007, fifteen (not quite 2 percent of the total) could be classified as service-learning courses. These served 221 students (about 9 percent of the student body). Over each of the last five semesters Skidmore has offered an average of ten SL courses, with the majority in interdisciplinary and preprofessional programs—education, management and business, and social work (although now and again there are offerings in other disciplines, such as AR 358, “Art for Children”).
In February 2008 Karp enthusiastically reported that faculty are teaching at least twenty SL courses this semester—a record number. Still, Skidmore ranks low among its peers in terms of institutional support for service learning. While the college now has an office of community service programs staffed by one full-time director, “it is normative for our peers to have civic engagement centers with staffs of three to seven,” Karp says. “There is significant organizational variation, but those that have centers that coordinate SL opportunities and offer faculty-development support clearly yield results in the diffusion of service learning across the curriculum.” At Skidmore, he says, “we really need to make inroads in civic engagement with the traditional liberal-arts majors and programs.”
Administrators implementing the college’s strategic plan are beginning to press the issue, and buy-in from more faculty is starting to take hold. While sociology professor Rik Scarce has little doubt that students are eager to be more fully engaged in the community, and that his teaching colleagues are committed to promoting civic engagement, they “need continued support—including financial support—from the administration. Funding for course development is a must,” he says. One step in this direction, Karp notes, is the college’s recent grant from the American Association of Colleges and Universities to support the development of SL opportunities in first-year seminars.
Michelle Hubbs, director of community service programs, agrees that Skidmore’s role at this point is not so much to encourage service—because “students are already involved in so many causes”—but to help students make connections between their service, their academic experience, and their personal and professional aspirations. “In my perfect world,” says Hubbs, “David Karp’s time would be dedicated to moving the SL agenda along and doing so from the academic side, which is the model in most schools with successful SL programs.” In his current position, she says, his responsibilities are spread thin.
STUDENTS, COMMUNITY, COLLEGE ALL BENEFIT
Students frequently report that SL opportunities make classroom concepts come alive for them, says social-work professor Crystal Moore. “Their experiences in the field can change the way they look at the world and themselves, and how they interact with people from different backgrounds.”
And the benefits to the community cannot be overlooked: “lots of free, enthusiastic labor—some intellectual, some physical,” says sociology professor Rik Scarce. “Our community partners receive infusions of new perspectives as well. Service learning is intended to be a two-way street. Skidmore is seen as a valued part of our community, a true member of it, and not some remote enclave out on North Broadway. The college matters through civic engagement.”
Senior Becca Horton says service work benefits everyone by building “the foundations of teamwork, cooperation, and kindness.” And the benefits for Skidmore in particular are that the college has “a more conscious, engaged, and caring student body—and a better relationship with the city of Saratoga Springs.” Being active in community endeavors “makes for a healthy relationship between the people who live here and the transient Skidmore students who take over their town for more than half the year,” agrees Shaila DeLea. “In college towns, there can be a lot of tension between students and the residents, but I don’t sense that here.”
Another key benefit, says Joseph Kaifala, is that students are granted “an opportunity to become participants in the transformation and progress of society. What can be better than being a part of the changes you wish to see in the world? In a community where every citizen is aware of the other’s condition, we can overcome apathy, bigotry, prejudice, and hate, and coexist in harmony.”
For Holly Fried, working with the people of Saratoga has broadened her knowledge of the structure of the city and taught her that the population expands well beyond Skidmore’s. Being Caucasian in the mostly Latino setting where she does her service-learning work is “a culture shock like I have never experienced before in my life,” she adds. “It makes me more aware of the make-up of the world and is the main catalyst for my desire for social justice.”
Michelle Hubbs concludes, “To be an informed citizen you need to be educated about the world and its issues.Theories may be learned from reading books, but books can’t give us experience. And it is experience that provides us with the opportunity to become a different person and sows the seeds of understanding, compassion, and motivation. It can be so easy to criticize, but it is a harder, longer journey that leads us to choose to become involved. Taking this journey benefits everyone.”