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April 2007

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The Making of a Good Citizen

UWRF's Participation in the American Democracy Project Shows Students the Value of Civic Engagement, Informed Voting and Community Service

BY BENJAMIN JIPSON, ’06

Fifty years ago terms like “civic engagement” and “service-learning” weren’t much used in academic settings. They were concepts educators and students simply saw as fundamental aspects of higher education. Civic engagement and service-learning meant a connection between campuses and their surroundings, and it was a style of education understood and expected by everyone—students, faculty, administrators and community residents.

American Democracy Project

But all that changed in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. “Something happened in between,” said Terry Brown, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She recalled her own experience as a professor. When she began teaching at UWRF in 1989, she felt that what she was doing in the classroom wasn’t making any connections to the River Falls community and the St. Croix Valley region. On a national scale, colleges and universities were no longer producing the engaged citizens that colleges and universities once sought to develop. College graduates became corporate commodities prepared solely for a life of productivity in a working environment. The original purpose of higher education had seemingly vanished.

Kurt Leichtle distributes the constitution

Professor Leichtle distributes the US Consititution.

The results, however, were quite clear. A general disconnect had formed between Americans and their government that caused voter turnout to plummet. Fewer citizens spent time volunteering, and a feeling of separation had wedged a gap between everyday citizens and their communities. Fifty percent of Americans would say the U.S. population was becoming less trustworthy according to a poll in 1996.

The phenomenon didn’t go unnoticed. Educators and administrators across the country realized they were losing something and, more importantly, saw the implications for future generations. Some institutions took up the battle cry to restore vital values needed in a functioning democracy. What followed was the founding of the American Democracy Project (ADP), an effort to revive higher education’s original purpose to produce citizens who are informed, thoughtful and involved.

UWRF is site of the ADP North Central Region Conference in the new University Center this April 12-14. Several distinguished scholars are slated to speak at the three-day conference. Among them are UWRF Chancellor Don Betz; Greg Brock, senior editor of The New York Times; Anne Colby, senior scholar for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; John Cronin, renowned environmentalist and policy maker; and George Mehaffy, vice president for Academic Leadership and Change, a division of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).

On a general level, UWRF hopes to facilitate conversations among campuses about civic engagement. While topics may vary, all will revolve around the central theme of sustainability. Common reading for conference participants includes three articles that appeared in a recent AASCU publication, “Educating for a Sustainable Society.”

Serving as an initiative of AASCU, the ADP has adopted the definition of civic engagement from Tom Ehrlich, a senior scholar and president emeritus at Indiana University. In his book, Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, Ehrlich emphasizes the value of improving the civic life of communities and “developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation” to make a difference.

In 2003, UWRF Chancellor Don Betz—then the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs and professor of Political Science at the University of Central Oklahoma—became a primary force in establishing the ADP, and he has been dubbed as an unofficial founder of the initiative by his peers. “A key to enhancing our democratic system is civic engagement, public involvement, becoming an active member of the community, be it local, state, national or beyond,” said Betz.

Since the engaged student and the engaged citizen are two separate entities, educating students is only half the battle. Appling knowledge in real-life situations and producing a citizen whose knowledge and engagement continues throughout life is the other, often more difficult, part. In that light, the ADP has partnered with The New York Times to increase newspaper readership among young adults by making copies of the publication available for students and faculty to use in classrooms. The Times has already become a widely used information source on the UWRF campus.

Additionally, the New Voters Project, though not directly associated with the ADP, has attempted to generate involved, learned young citizens and increase voter turnout among 18-24 year olds. The hoped-for result is that candidates will more readily address issues relevant to young and first-time voters. The Project has had immediate impact. On a nation-wide scale in the 2002 election, the increase in young voter turnout was four times the rate of the general population’s increase. Since becoming part of the New Voters Project in 2004, UWRF was able to double voter participation among students from the 2000 to the 2004 presidential election. A similar effort boosted student participation in the Fall 2006 election.

But it goes beyond the voting booth. Whether tutoring inner-city students in St. Paul or assisting with the reconstruction effort on the Gulf Coast, UWRF students are becoming more involved, honing their skills as educators and citizens while meeting the needs of communities.

And the benefits of the ADP stretch even farther. Faculty members are thrilled to see the positive effects of such an initiative. Brown admits it feels natural for her and her colleagues to have an attraction to service-learning. “The idea that we faculty members can be contributing something that could make for a better and stronger democracy has great appeal,” she said.

Discover more information about the American Democracy Project at UWRF

Ben Jipson graduated from UWRF in December 2006 with a degree in English and professional writing. Now residing in Duluth, Minn., Jipson is eager to do some world traveling before landing a "real" job or enrolling in a graduate program.

 

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