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Active Citizenship Focus of New Center

Center for Civic Engagement will bridge classroom learning and service

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December 2, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- With support from the McCormick Foundation, Northwestern University is launching a center that will help students and faculty find and develop firsthand connections between classroom learning and service in the community and the world at large.

"The Center for Civic Engagement will work to promote a lifelong commitment to active citizenship and social responsibility among students, faculty and other members of the University community," says University Provost Daniel Linzer. "Its creation is an affirmation of Northwestern's commitment to prepare students to excel not only in their careers but also to prepare them to be responsible leaders and engaged citizens."

A University-wide endeavor that will include an advisory board of faculty from all Northwestern's undergraduate schools, the Center for Civic Engagement will report to the Office of the Provost. It will open its doors winter quarter at 1813 Hinman Ave., Evanston campus, sharing space with the Undergraduate Leadership Program.

"One need only look at the recent presidential campaign season to see the extraordinary energy and contribution young adults bring to a project when they feel they can make a meaningful difference," says Dan Lewis, professor of education and social policy and Institute for Policy Research Faculty Fellow who will direct the Center for Civic Engagement.

For at least two decades, Northwestern has offered courses that tap into that kind of youthful energy and combine experiential service learning with academics. In these courses, for example, students learn about immigration issues while working for a Chicago advocacy group; about homelessness at a shelter in the nation's capital; about educational policy while working in an Evanston school; or about sustainability by helping create solar power systems in Panama.

"Whatever and wherever the endeavor, one thing is certain. Students want to increase the quantity and quality of civic learning experiences on campus," says Lewis. "The job of the Center for Civic Engagement will be to make this happen and, in doing so, make Northwestern the best private university in the country for developing active citizens."

Northwestern already has an established reputation around the country for outstanding service learning initiatives. Among them are the field studies programs at both the School of Education and Social Policy and Weinberg College of Arts and Science; the Undergraduate Leadership Program; the Certificate in Service-Learning Program; the Freshman Urban Program; the Civic Education Project and the Asset-Based Community Development Institute.

These and other programs, along with student-led initiatives like Globe Med, the Northwestern University Public Interest Program and the Center for Global Engagement, will be the "bricks" upon which the Center for Civic Engagement builds new and stronger partnerships between the University and local, regional and world communities that will result in new research and service learning projects.

Among the first things the Center will do is create an up-to-date and easily accessible inventory of public service opportunities offered at the University. It also will train students with a personal knowledge and personal experience of Northwestern's service learning programs to serve as advisors to other students.

The Center will be a hub for making connections between students, staff, faculty and community and policy-related organizations engaging in research or direct action for the public good, according to Robert Donahue, who will leave his position as director of Northwestern's Civic Education Project to become associate director of the new Center.

"The Center will be a place for debating, educating, and actively engaging University community members in pressing social issues," Donahue adds. "It will complement and help coordinate public service programs, efforts and research across disciplines and schools."

Lewis envisions the development of a sequential program that students can follow to become more responsible citizens and better understand community dynamics and social change.

While students who discover classes with a civic engagement component often want to take more of them, such courses are not always easy to find on Northwestern's decentralized campus.

"Many students discover civic engagement by accident and not intentionally," says Kelly Kirkpatrick, a senior in the School of Education and Social Policy, who became involved in public service learning as a freshman in that school's two-year service learning certificate program. For students like Kirkpatrick, civic engagement becomes central to their education.

An unofficial liaison between the steering committee working to establish the Center and the undergraduate student body, Kirkpatrick says community involvement and civic engagement are "part of my narrative and part of who I am."

Kirkpatrick is a coordinator for the student-developed Northwestern Public Interest Program, which provides grants to young alumni with ideas for creating social change. And, after availing herself of numerous courses with and about public service, she now is writing an honors thesis on the impact of civic engagement on young adults. Upon graduation, she will work at the Evanston Community Foundation, where she did an internship earlier this year.

Last year, Kirkpatrick, with Weinberg senior Rachel Berkowitz and other student leaders, wrote a letter to the Provost in support of the creation of a Center for Civic Engagement. The letter was a reflection of a longstanding groundswell of student interest in establishing a centralized place to connect civic-minded students, faculty and community organizations, according to Donahue.

More than 10 years ago, Donahue himself was part of that student groundswell. As a Northwestern undergraduate in 1995, he developed the Alternative Spring Break Program. The student-run program still offers Northwestern students the opportunity to spend spring break participating in public service in cities across the country and abroad.

The Center will serve students according to their interest. "Some may visit the Center to find ways to tutor students in Evanston once a week or to help make the Special Olympics held here each year a success," says Kirkpatrick. "It may be enough for a theatre student that the Center helps connect him or her with a group that wants to put on a play at a local middle school."

On the other hand, students may find, like Kirkpatrick, that they get "hooked" on civic engagement and want to explore it through classes and more intensive off-campus experiences. The Center will be a space in which students can take their interest in civic engagement as far as they want it to go.