In Service to Others
Dr. Ellen Hay, professor of communication studies and director of the Institute for Leadership and Service
At Augustana, we sometimes talk about the Augie Bubble in reference to a lack of involvement in the community that surrounds us, but it has been my experience that our students are far from indifferent to the needs from others. In fact, they look forward to using the knowledge and abilities they've acquired at Augustana to partner with various organizations and agencies to serve the community.
For the last four years, my department of communication studies has offered a civic engagement option to our seniors. Instead of a traditional research paper and presentation, some of our seniors have chosen to complete a community project. In the fall, students research an issue of concern to them and then identify an organization that addresses this problem. During these initial weeks of the course, we do activities to help students better define their strengths and values, to understand how study in our field connects to the community, and to consider the responsibility that we have toward others. They keep a reflective journal while doing this. When students have a better sense of the needs of their community partners, they design a special project for them. During the winter, the students implement their projects. At the end of winter term, they write a paper that integrates background research on the issue with a discussion of their projects and a reflection on the experience.
These students have completed amazing projects involving a range of subjects. Several of the seniors considered childhood obesity. Andrea Nettleton '06 worked with the Rock Island-Milan schools on a wellness program. Brittany Griganavicius '08 organized an educational workshop for parents through the YMCA, and Nicole Bosco '07 hosted an Olympics Day for the afterschool program at the Friendly House. Taking a slightly different approach, Kim Cieniawa '07 sponsored a half-day session for sixth-grade Girl Scouts and their mothers so that they could discuss maintaining a healthy body image.
After researching rural hunger issues, Nicole Bieri '07 created a student hunger drive with high schools in Mercer County, Ill. That same year, Cammie Bourlet '07 looked at water quality and implemented the Adopt an Illinois River Mile program through Living Lands and Waters. Following his study of the impact of illiteracy, Matt Young '08 organized a book drive so he could give a book to each student at a local elementary school and hosted an Augustana Reads day for the children.
Last summer, Augustana was able to extend this experience to students in other majors through generous funding from the Kemper Foundation, the Augustana Institute for Leadership and Service, and the Augustana Center for Vocational Reflection. Fourteen students interned during the summer at various not-for-profit and government organizations, including the Sara Lee Foundation in the Chicago area and Habitat for Humanity in the Quad Cities (see "Summer internships"). We prepared for these experiences in spring term by researching the organizations and the needs they address. We also completed many of the activities that have been part of our departmental program, including Gallup's Strengthsfinder and a values inventory. Upon returning to campus in the fall, we met weekly to reflect upon their internships and prepare final presentations and papers, similar to what is done during the academic year.
The theoretical underpinning for this approach to Senior Inquiry has been a developmental perspective called self-authorship, the ability to develop one's own perspective. More than a skill, it is a way of making meaning of one's experiences. Self-authorship is well suited to civic engagement and service learning projects. Based upon previous research on cognitive development, Marcia Baxter Magolda of Miami University of Ohio has articulated a framework for moving students from externally defined views of self, relations with others, and beliefs about knowledge to individuals who listen to their own internal voices. Research has demonstrated that to develop this sense of self, students must have meaningful experiences both inside and outside the classroom. From these experiences they learn about who they are, how to interact with others and how to use the knowledge and abilities they have gained through their studies.
This growth in self-authorship is evident in the seniors who have participated in these civic engagement projects. For me, one of the special rewards has been the reflective component. Hearing the students in their own words explain what they have learned from these experiences reveals just how deeply they have been impacted. Amy Howard wrote, "During this internship, I have learned so much about my personal values and strengths. I am a stronger person. I feel as though I have become an advocate for the issues that are important to me." Megan D'Angelo noted, "A result of this internship has been a titanic change of attitude towards who I am and what I want out of life. I love my internship. Learning new things and helping people every day, while having fun, is exactly what I want in a career.... Please understand that I have not changed to appease others, but to come more wholly myself." Allison Stoner said her internship helped "define myself as a person and what I want to do during my life. One idea that has been instilled in me in this internship is the fact that one person can create change.... Pushing for positive changes may require perseverance, but even small changes can make the place we live a little better."
In addition to facilitating student growth, the community also benefits from these programs. Many of the community partners who worked with our students take time from their busy schedules to attend our final presentations. Most community partners are quick to ask me for another student. Judy Schaefer, director of the Sara Lee Foundation, described her intern, Ally Stombres, this way: "What a joy it was to have Ally as part of our team this summer. She fit in so well and so quickly. She focused on what she wanted to accomplish and had a tremendous work ethic. She far exceeded the expectations that I had. She gave a mid-term presentation, and it was well done, thorough, and had a lot of information that will be very useful for us in the future."
For me personally, it has been a tremendous pleasure to work with students in a somewhat untraditional learning experience, to see them develop as young adults. For many it has been a way to integrate the various aspects of their liberal arts education and use what they discov-ered in the classroom to meet the needs of others. One of the readings we complete to prepare for these projects says it best. Paul Loeb, in his book Soul of a Citizen, noted, "Again and again, I've heard active citizens say that what motivates them the most is the desire to respect what they see in the mirror. The exercise isn't about vanity, but about values, about taking stock of ourselves and comparing the convictions we say we hold with the lives we actually lead."
That is exactly the kind of lesson we want our students to learn while at Augustana.