The Higher Education track at the Conference on Volunteering and Service examined the question of how colleges and universities can equip students to be 21st century citizens. Over the course of three sessions and a keynote presentation, speakers shared insights and concerns about how higher education institutions engage with broader society, provide opportunities for students to deepen their learning through volunteerism and service learning, and encourage interaction with people, cultures and views different from their own. The track, which was sponsored by KeyBank and Antioch University, brought together leaders from higher education, community intuitions and the private sector.
The first session, “Bridging Democratic Engagement and Service Learning Roundtable,” examined how institutions of higher education could encourage democratic engagement with service learning as a means to equip students with the necessary skills to prepare them to be active agents in their communities as well as strong members of the workforce.
Speakers from the University of Houston-Downtown, Tulane University and Colorado State University shared examples of programs and initiatives at their institutions. John Locke, a University of Houston-Downtown graduate talked about how he founded the Walk2Vote program on his campus to encourage college students to vote. The program has now grown to be a national model for student civic organization.
While the first session focused on examples from individual departments or programs, the second session invited college presidents to share their perspective on the role higher education plays in creating civic leaders.
One theme that emerged was that colleges and universities are seeing a resurgence and demand from students to offer volunteer and service learning opportunities connected to current political issues. For example, Dr. Bill Flores, provost, CEO and associate vice chancellor of Antioch University, and Dr. Otto Lee, president of Los Angeles Harbor Community College, shared that they have seen an increased interest from students in the politics of immigration and rights of undocumented students.
The third session, “Dialogue on Social Responsibility: How Corporations and Nonprofits Promote Social Responsibility and How Can Higher Ed Better Partner With Them,” brought together speakers from KeyBank, Starbucks and Youth Service America. The panelists shared how their organizations are partnering with higher education institutions to advance their philanthropic goals. Eric S. Brown, senior program officer for corporate philanthropy, at KeyBank shared that they believe we don’t have a single student to lose – their investments in education are about making sure every student gets an opportunity and succeeds in completing their education.
The day ended with a presentation by David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation. David startled the room by starting his speech, “We have a new challenge, our democracy is in trouble. Everyone in this room grew up with the assumption that you were going to live in a functioning democracy. There is a survey done by The Economist every year on the health of democracies in the world. The United States has fallen. Nobody would have ever believed that would happen, but it has. This trend has been developing for decades and nobody has paid any attention to it.”
David hypothesized that higher education is no longer seen as an agent of democracy, as a public good serving a public good, but simply as a vehicle for students to get high-paying careers. He challenged the room to rethink how colleges and universities equip students to be citizens and take home the lessons from the day to rethink their work.
Dr. Flores closed the track by reminding everyone of the important role they play and asking them to keep the conversation going. “We want to have an ongoing dialogue, not something that takes place one time, but something that we can build off of. We would like to work with you. You are the leaders and your community needs your leadership. It needs your discourse and engagement. This society, this country belong to us.”