Op-Ed: New Student Orientation a Civic Learning Moment

Earlier this year, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement pronounced that we are in a "crucible moment" in our nation's democratic history.

After months of roundtables, the Task Force argued in their ground-breaking report, "A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future," that we, as a society, must call on colleges and universities to "embrace civic learning and democratic engagement as an undisputed educational priority."

Why? Research shows that college students want their college to contribute to the community but that desire, as well as the opportunities they see to meet these goals lose steam the longer they stay in school.

This is both sobering and inspiring for college educators. Sobering because fostering civic engagement in young adults is vitally important for the future of our democracy. Inspiring because there are so many new and innovative ways to take a “crucible moment” and transform it into a “transformative moment.”

One such “crucible moment” is a college student’s first days on campus. Increasingly, U.S. colleges and universities are working to connect the “crucible moment” of coming to college with the national “crucible moment” of educating and equipping our next generation of civic leaders.

At Widener University, just outside of Philadelphia in Chester, Pa., we believe that our university can become stronger by empowering the community that surrounds us. Widener’s students are our civic leaders of tomorrow — and we begin on Day 1 right here in Chester.

Widener’s Office of Civic Engagement “Freshman Day of Service” involves nearly half the 700-person freshman class. Rather than just asking the students to hop on a bus and pick up the nearby neighbor’s trash, two Widener student leaders spent the summer selecting and coordinating the details for 28 meaningful service experiences in the Chester area — over 20 inside the Chester city limits.

Working to connect new students with Chester’s community organizations and residents, Widener’s Office of Civic Engagement staff combined an educational component with the day of service to address any perceived stereotypes of Chester or the value of service to the greater community.

The civic engagement staff worked with a Widener faculty member to produce a 12-minute video featuring Chester residents, community partners, Widener faculty and administrators, and student leaders sharing information about Chester’s rich history, its current social and economic struggles, and Widener’s civic mission and community collaborations.

After viewing the video on the second day of New Student Orientation, students traveled in groups to community partner sites to spend the second afternoon of their college career serving alongside their new classmates and Chester residents.

Activities ranged from reading games with the residents of an assisted living center, to helping organize computer and classroom space at the Chester Education Foundation, to tagging and moving boxes for an interfaith flea market.

Later, upper-class student leaders reflected with the freshmen in small groups about their experience and what they learned.

Students spoke about how they shifted their perception of Chester, a community hampered by a negative stereotype. One freshman who volunteered at the Nia Center said, “The only things I ever heard were negative, but this experience showed me the positive and prideful people in the community.”

A student who volunteered at Shiloh Baptist Church said the experience “definitely helped me understand Widener’s civic mission by making me realize how close this community is and how we can all do something to help others.”

Of the 243 students who completed the survey at the end of the afternoon, 92 percent of them said they would like to participate in service experiences again.

Anticipating this outcome, the Office of Civic Engagement promoted opportunities for more civic engagement.

As educators we must seize the opportunity to challenge, empower and support our next generation of leaders to live as responsible, thoughtful citizens dedicated to positive change.

Although Widener’s Freshman Day of Service is just one day, we believe it was a crucible, transformative moment for our leaders of tomorrow.


Elizabeth Housholder is the assistant dean for civic engagement at Widener University in Chester, Pa. Contact her at eahousholder@widener.edu.


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