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Community-Engaged Academic Pathways - Guides

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Community-Engaged Academic Pathways

Overview  |  Guides  |  Campus Examples  |  Documents to Download


Lessons Learned from the FIPSE Initiative

As discussed on the Overview page, with support from a US Department of Education FIPSE grant in 2004, the Bonner Foundation and 15 campuses created civic engagement minors, certificates or majors. Through annual gatherings and publications, they also shared lessons learned from this experience. The monograph Civic Engagement at the Center: Building Democracy Through Integrated Cocurricular and Curricular Experiences (available for purchase at www.aacu.org for $15) provides examples and case studies of the development of these academic programs. The monograph covers:


  • Making Civic Engagement Intentional and Developmental
  • Curricular Architecture for Civic Engagement Initiatives
  • Critical Elements of Minors and Certificate Programs
  • What Research Reveals about Bonner Co-curricular Programs
  • Catalysts for Success: Advice from the Field
  • Essential Learning Outcomes (which tie to AAC&U's LEAP Initiative and High-Impact Practices)
  • Illustration of the Model: Campus Profile Synopses (the book included a synopsis of the academic programs at 16 institutions, including 6 public four-year universities and 10 private four-year colleges. See Campus Examples. 


The information below draws on this project, as well as internal planning resources that were provided to and developed by the institutions. In the Campus Examples page, you will also find links to other institutions that have developed civic engagement or related majors, minors, concentrations or other academic programs. 


Identify and Use the Pillars or Common Courses of the Academic Programs

Faculty teams and curriculum committees that are working to create a new academic program often examine existing programs to learn from their models. For the Bonner Foundation and the 15 campuses involved in the FIPSE Initiative, several themes, concepts and activities emerged. This allowed the Foundation to articulate a basic structure of a civic engagement certificate or minor. These offered other campuses a blueprint to consult or follow as they develop an academic program focused on providing students with both course-based and experiential knowledge, skills, and practice in civic engagement. The term "pillars" was used to describe the core features or characteristics associated with these civic engagement academic programs on campuses. Pillars of these programs included the following characteristics:


  • Integrated: In these academic programs, co-curricular activities are integrated with academic coursework.


  • Intense: Each student participates in a significant off-campus experience, such as regular engagement during the school year or a full-time term or summer internship. For institutions with the Bonner Program, students are often able to link their regular Bonner work (8 hours per week) with courses. Each program involves at least four academic courses as part of the curriculum, depending on whether it is a certificate, minor, or major. 


  • Multi-Year: This academic pathways involves a multi-year progression. The programs span at least two years and often four years of co-curricular engagement and coursework. These programs are not merely comprised of disconnected service-learning courses; they have a thoughtful progressions. They can involve some or many courses that do not tie to service but still equip students with the knowledge they need to engage more effectively. Thus, the progression may include a course, an internship, another course, and a capstone.


  • Developmental/ Sequential (Scaffolded): Both the co-curricular service and training activities and the civic engagement certificate-related academic courses have to have to be organized with a beginning, middle and end so that the expectations and requirements increase and are built one upon the other. The programs build students' knowledge and skills developmentally.


  • Structural Analysis (Understanding Root Causes and Solutions): In these academic programs, students often take coursework in public policy, politics, democratic engagement or other areas that allow them to understand that “just volunteering” or “stand alone community service” may not eradicate the issues. Students learn to integrate their civic experiences with opportunities to work in politics and public policy. Programs may also do this through local, state, and national government internships, or by teaching students to research and analyze a problem.


  • Economic and Social Inequities: Educational programs related to community and civic engagement include opportunity to understand and address inequities by class, race, gender, and other factors.  In their experiential components, students often engage first-hand in tackling such inequities and connect their experiences with classroom content.


  • Diversity and Global: Most of the programs also include coursework and reflective requirements that help students to learn diverse domestic and global perspectives. 


Inventory Existing Courses and Develop a Structure


As institutions that participated in Bonner's Civic Engagement Minor Project, a common structure or architecture emerged for these programs. This allowed each institution to find and weave in courses that already existed in their curriculum. In fact, most of the institutions reported that the creation of these new minors and programs involved very little new course design. Where it did occur, new courses were often in the form of a Lead-In/Gateway course (i.e., a First Year Experience course) and a Capstone or culminating experience. 


A typical course structure, explained below, may have included the following, but usually with only about 5-6 course requirements, some of which tied to the Bonner Program service work or other cocurricular experience:


  1. A Lead-In or Gateway Course
  2. Coursework about economic and social inequities (such as poverty and racism)
  3. Coursework that exposes students to issues in both local and global contexts
  4. Issue-based Service Learning and Community-based Research Courses (also involving teaching students specific methodologies)
  5. Coursework on how to engage politically or in the democratic process to address issues (such as public policy research or government internships)
  6. A significant experiential component for a term or summer (such as a Full-time Internship)
  7. A Capstone (course and experience


Your design team may want to start with a simple inventory of existing coursework. If you are working to develop a Civic Engagement Minor, you can use the structure above. If you are working to create another program, such as an issue focused minor like Food Justice, consult the examples in the Campus Examples section. Inventory your courses based on models you see in the programs. The structure here will still help.


If you are working to link the academic program with your Bonner Program, consider using the Bonner Cornerstone Activities as a strategy in your design. Siena College followed this progression when they created a Certificate in Community Development. Here's how that might look: 


  1. A Lead-In or Gateway Course such as a FYE course tied to the Bonner First Year Trip. For instance, the course could expose students to introductory concepts in civic engagement and prepare them for the First Year Trip. 
  2. A sophomore level course (perhaps about poverty and economic development) tied to the Sophomore Exchange. For instance, the course could introduce broader types of political engagement, such as advocacy and policy work, which can be connected to the Sophomore Exchange.
  3. A junior course tied to an international trip for the junior class or upper-class students spending a term in another context (and an issue in global context). Then, working with a Bonner International Partner (such as CoCoDA, Peacework, or Omprakash) or your study abroad office, provide student with opportunities to engage internationally.
  4. Relevant methods courses, such as to teach students how to do community-based research, oral histories, statistical analysis, survey design, etc. (but possibly from different choices tied to the student's major or interests). These also prepare students for Bonner Capstones.
  5. Consider a course and/or internship on public policy (perhaps tied to a summer internship or an independent study). Here, students can intern with government offices or work on policy and campaigns through national partners (such as the Congressional Hunger Center, RESULTS, Fair Elections Legal Network, etc.)
  6. A Capstone Course or Seminar, tied to the Bonner's junior/senior capstone project (i.e., a significant project). This is also "Community-Engaged Signature Work" 


More on the Courses to Include in a Civic Engagement Program 

(1) Lead-In Course

Most programs have a lead-in course as part of the first year experience. These courses may be freshmen seminars, learning communities, first year orientation courses, and other expressions of first year academic design. Within the broad parameters that these academic boundaries often operate, there is an opportunity to include readings, writings, and discussions about service and justice. These courses also draw in other students (beyond Bonners), introducing them to a progression of opportunities.


(2) Economic and Social Inequities

A survey of dozens of campuses confirms the assumption that most, if not all, schools have within their existing curriculum courses that expose student to issues of domestic (and/or global) poverty and economic inequity. These courses can be found in any number of disciplines but most frequently are located in U.S. history, sociology, political science, public policy and literature. Additionally, many of the programs offer coursework on specific social and cultural inequities, such as related to race, ethnicity, gender, and culture. 


(3) Global or International Issues

Much like courses involving domestic poverty, there are many different academic disciplines and multi-disciplinary courses that introduce, inform, educate and require thoughtful analysis of international issues. Often, academic programs teach students to understand and connect the local and the global. For instance, students might look at an issue like water in both contexts. In these courses, students are often required to integrate their own service experiences with a global perspective, whether through an immersion experience, a research paper, or reflection.


(4) Service Learning and Community Based Research Courses

Over the last decades, there has been an explosion of service learning course all across the curriculum. When offered, a student is required to take a service-learning course in his or her academic major field of study. If no such course if offered, the student would be required to take a service-learning course from a different discipline. Where possible, students are encouraged to take at least two courses that have an experiential, CEL, or service-learning component. 


(5) Full-Time Internship (not necessarily for credit)

There are many academic programs that focus on a public issue but do not involve a civic or community engagement component. In the Foundation's view, civic academic pathways should involve a significant experiential component. This may be through Bonner service, one or more internships, an undergraduate research project that is done in conjunction with a partner, etc.


(6) Senior Capstone Experience

Most academic programs include a formal capstone project, supported by a course, a senior seminar, an independent study, or community-based research project advised by a faculty member.


Factors for Success Process and Suggestions 

What are the elements that make a campus ripe for an initiative like this and what are the ingredients for success? Civic Engagement at the Center has much more content about these recommendations, but here are some highlights.


For one, these academic civic engagement programs have been initiated and approved at institutions of all sizes. In the initial FIPSE project work, about half of the institutions had enrollments of 1,500 to 5,000 undergraduates. Campuses with fewer than 1,000 and greater than 10,000 undergraduates also participated.  In addition, these institutions had a variety of settings including urban, sub-urban, and rural. They included private and public institutions, Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs), and large research universities.


From our collective experience, it seems that several factors help to catalyze a program like the Civic Engagement Minor or Certificate or lead to its successful creation.  Among the key factors that make a campus ripe for this are:


• Strong programs and structures for campus-community partnerships and service (such as the Bonner Program and other cohort-based programs)

• Strong group of committed and engaged faculty

• Support of the President, Provost, and other administrators

• Interest and/or demand on the part of students

• Outside support and guidance from an entity like the Bonner Foundation (Bringing Theory to Practice and Imagining America are also good groups to connect with for this).


Administrative and Leadership Buy-In:  What kind of administrator and leadership support is needed to get a program off the ground?

The support of a passionate faculty member or group of faculty is seen as essential and was cited as important for more than half of the campuses involved.  The vision and support of an administrative staff member is equally important. The vision of a President can be a helpful catalyst but is not always the impetus.  


Faculty Involvement:  What number and types of faculty and professors are involved?

The number of departments that are involved do vary, from as few as 1-3 (15% of our examples) to greater than 10 (about half).  Only a few may be involved in the initial design, and then the designing committee may reach out to recruit the involvement of others. In moving to involve other faculty, some of the strategies are:


    • Offering faculty an attractive option to teach courses of their choice, or freeing them from other teaching loads or requirements
    • Identifying faculty who are teaching relevant courses and asking for their support or participation
    • Offering additional funding or mini-grants
    • Providing leadership roles or positions


Structure and Governance:  Where are these programs housed?

There is not one best place for the initiative to be housed.  In our examples, the academic initiatives fall under diverse departments or centers on campus including the Honors College, Center for Community Engagement and/or Learning, Office of Experiential Learning, Anthropology, Social Work, Sociology, Political Science, Department of Public Administration and Office of Community-University Partnerships, LifeWorks, College Partnership for Civic Engagement, and Academic Affairs. However, in more than the majority of examples, the person in charge is a designated full-time faculty member at the institution.  


Timeline:  What is the general timeline (span of time) from conception to passing a minor? 

In our experience, nearly 70 percent of the campuses were able to design and approve the minor or certificate in less than one year or 1-2 years.  In about 15 percent, the process took 3-4 years, and in a few cases the design and approval process is still underway. In more than half of our examples, students enrolled as soon as the program was offered.  In other cases, it can take up to a year or a bit longer to enroll students.  


Student Recruitment:  What are some of the important elements to think about for recruiting students?

One of the key elements that some campuses have overlooked when planning these initiatives is reaching out to students, even before the program is fully up-and-running.  Getting students involved in the conception and design of these initiatives is a good idea.  Also, it’s important to audit the program’s design from the point-of-view of a student who you hope will enroll in the program; will that highly involved student actually be able to enroll in this program, given his or her other demands? Effective recruitment strategies include:


    • Student to student recruitment
    • Having specific faculty recruit students, through courses or advising
    • On-campus advertising, through relevant centers, publications, or departments
    • Intentional marketing with student leadership organizations like the Black Student Union, Student Government, Greek Council, etc.
    • Sending a letter inviting first-year students to become part of the civic engagement certificate program
    • Linking the program with co-curricular programs like the Bonner Scholars and Bonner Leaders Programs


Advice for Other Campuses: If another institution or colleague was asking you for advice in order to begin their own program, what would you recommend most?


    • Make sure the potential program is integrated with other priorities for the institution and that your campus has clear commitment to engaged scholarship, service learning and community learning as a cornerstone of undergraduate education. Tying it to your institution's strategic plan goals is also clearly very helpful.
    • Identify the organization or department on campus that can spearhead planning and development best. Although incorporating faculty from all areas of the university is extremely useful to the development process, having one department be primarily responsible for the program facilitates clear communication and ensures that program tasks and responsibilities are being monitored and addressed.
    • But also, build a support base of key leaders in wide areas of the campus.  Having multiple perspectives (different academic departments, student services and academic affairs, students, faculty, administrators, alumni) creates synergy and gives greater advocacy voice. Tap into faculty and student creative interest. If you are considering something like a concentration, don’t start within the bounds of a single discipline but instead, consider a theme or interest that can relate across disciplines (for example, human interests in public art).
    • Do a lot of pre-planning. Solicit involvement from individuals who have time and interest in participating. Use distributed democratic practices to address your campus interests and culture.  Plan to spend a notable amount of time soliciting advice from many faculty groups, governance bodies, and departments & soliciting advice from administrators and students; draw on existing curricular foundations and community engagement practices. Identify key allies and campus champions and bring them together regularly in conversation. Try to identify internal or external sources of validation and seed funding to pilot specific courses.
    • Talk to students early.  Interview students to see if there is a sincere interest in civic engagement. Make sure that the end result is a program that students CAN and WILL enroll in (some programs have dropped away due to faulty requirements or other reasons that deter students).
    • Meet with several key (deeper) community partner representatives to share the mission and goals of the program and get them involved. Partners can be on working groups and can inform the themes, courses, and projects (problem-based learning).
    • Look at their institution's catalog and see which courses they could hook together. Know your faculty and determine who would be willing to work together to make a new idea work.
    • Re-think some of the assumptions of the service-learning movement (basing it on volunteer efforts in the non-profit sector) and instead think about ultimate desired outcomes for the common good, and see how all sectors as described above can make contributions toward those goals. That opens the door for much more participation, from the scholars, the artists, the business people, the faith leaders, as well as the non-profit service folks and traditional activists.
    • Build, enhance, and tap into a well-supported civic engagement center on campus. Cultivate synergies with co-curricular service-learning programs.
    • Start with an ambitious design but implement what will work now and then keep a group of highly committed folks working with it who are willing to see the program evolve and change as you gain experience and insights from students, staff and faculty.