As a longtime professor and administrator, I am amazed at this generation of young people, especially their commitment to making the world a better place. This issue of Wagner Magazine takes a look at a few of these “student jugglers,” who balance their studies with internships, athletic endeavors, leadership of student organizations, and civic engagement.
Studies show that today’s young people want more in life than material reward. They want to belong to something larger than themselves; they have a strong sense of social and civic responsibility; and they want to work for positive change in their communities.
Nationwide, colleges and universities are providing opportunities for them to do so in a meaningful way. Where volunteering once meant an occasional service event focused on “giving back,” today’s model is one based on sustained collaborations that connect the classroom to the surrounding community.
Partnerships enable us to focus on the root causes of society’s challenges and not merely the symptoms.
In short, colleges and universities have evolved from community outreach to community partnerships. This shift reflects a growing recognition that our resources — principally knowledge, labor, and leadership — can and should be applied to addressing immediate needs that local governments and non-profits are unable to handle.
Higher education institutions are stepping in to help bridge the gap between needs and resources. During the 2011–12 school year, for example, student volunteers from just 557 schools — roughly one-fifth of U.S. colleges and universities — contributed an estimated $9.7 billion worth of services to their communities, working with at-risk youth, the homeless and hungry, people dealing with mental and physical illness; and addressing issues ranging from environmental pollution to cross-cultural understanding.
Most are doing these things with little, if any, additional new spending. Instead, it’s a matter of aligning resources already earmarked for teaching, research, and student life with the needs of our surrounding communities.
At Wagner, we call it the “community-defined curriculum.” Our approach is not one of “doing for” or “showing how.” We recognize that the true experts on any community are the people who live there and that long-term success will be determined by them.
While it’s often said that the desire to change must come from within, without the belief that change is possible and the capacity to bring it about, no amount of desire is sufficient. Partnerships enable us to focus on the root causes of society’s challenges and not merely the symptoms, and empower individuals to take control of their own destinies and contribute to the greater good.
Case in point: On Staten Island, Wagner and more than two dozen local organizations have formed the Port Richmond Partnership. Part classroom, part laboratory and part community resource, the Partnership serves as an engine of civic capacity. Student nurses don’t just treat patients in local hospitals and clinics; they deal with the social and cultural factors that contribute to health issues. Business students work with local entrepreneurs to develop and execute business plans. Foreign-language majors help immigrant parents improve their English, so they can participate more fully in their children's educations and in society generally. The list goes on.
These experiences not only deepen our students’ appreciation of what it means to be an active citizen, but also enhance their competitiveness in the job market. According to a 2013 survey by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, 86 percent of business leaders want colleges to provide opportunities for students to work with others to solve problems in their communities. And 71 percent value candidates and employees who are interested in giving back to their communities.
Stronger communities, better citizens, enhanced opportunities in the job market. And all within our existing budgets. That's what I call a best value in higher education.
— Richard Guarasci, President
A version of this essay was originally published on HuffingtonPost.com.