Our current social and political environment, both in the US and in the world, has demanded that our companies, organizations, and citizens be involved and take a stance for the things they care about. Colleges and universities have been no exception. In fact, there is probably a good amount of pressure for institutions to be responsible for cultivating civically engaged adults. After all, the social issues that we face as a global society are large in number. Whether we consider climate change, poverty, racial tensions, gender-related violence, or any number of other tragedies in today’s world, change will not happen overnight. Today’s college students have an asset that many others in our society do not: time. A civically engaged person does not stop caring about these issues upon graduation; he or she continues to affect change throughout the rest of his or her life.
The idea of civic engagement matters enough for many institutions to want to incorporate it into their core brand. Good news! Today’s traditional prospects, members of Generation Edge, are known for wanting to contribute to their communities and the world. Volunteering, social activism, etc.- they are already on board! The trick is to cultivate that desire and help it grow, rather than demand it from them. It’s not volunteering if it’s being volun-told to them? (Note: this separate is different from incorporating civic learning into the curriculum requirements.)
Incorporating civic engagement into an organization’s overall strategy is a big undertaking. Keeping these tips in mind can help ease the transition.
- Facilitate and provide opportunities. Alternative Spring Break options, service learning opportunities, volunteer student organizations, and social awareness events can all help create the environment that builds community. As a bonus, students seeing a giving mentality in their peers will help snowball the efforts. The impact of a good deed is so much greater when 50 people are working toward the same goal!
- Eliminate roadblocks. Providing resources, structure (such as a club or event), and transportation can help eliminate roadblocks to the altruistic work that students already want to do. Can the institution help with funding? If not, can the institution help with fundraising?
- Include the faculty. Students respect the faculty that are involved, so they hold influence over the culture of civic engagement at an institution. Are they on board? Do students see them at volunteering events? Are they leading alternative spring break trips? If not, it can be tempting to start mandating attendance and participation, but then we are back to the issue of being volun”told” to care. Instead, perhaps the faculty have an interest with which students would love to help out.
- Stay relevant. There is no lack of hot-button topics on today’s college and university campuses, and there is no reason to see that changing soon. These issues can be delicate, since most of them either originate in violence or have led to violence on a college campus. In this instance, it’s essential to know your student body and what they are open to discussing as a whole. There is no one-size-fits-all formula, but know that your students are paying attention to how administration, faculty, and their peers handle current events.
- Share the opportunities. Once students are on board and active, don’t forget to get the word out! Sharing the good work that others are doing will help encourage more students and faculty to jump on the bandwagon. Students will often be happy to share on social media, especially if the right platform is set up and ready- for example, a Snapchat event geofilter, or an Instagram hashtag.
Framingham State University encourages community involvement with a variety of techniques. They excel at responding to current issues, and often hold teach-ins and public discussions to help students cope with and process tragic events, such as the massacre in Orlando this June.
As we always ask with brand evolutions, does this apply to other stakeholders? For donors, influencers, and grant-providers, the level of civic engagement at a college or university helps take away the mystery of what happens with dollars into an institution. If someone invests in a university where the students care about the world around them, that investment is likely going to circle back to the community, in one way or another.
In the end, if leadership makes the decision to include civic engagement as part of the organization’s brand, there had better be someone delivering on that promise- or there should at least be evidence that the institution is moving in that direction.