Dezaray Delgado, left, and Jenna Petersen, Chicago-area high school juniors who enrolled in the Civic Education Project last spring, work on a new house for a low-income family in rural Kentucky.

(Photo by Jacob Fries)

Building Good Citizens

On a sunny August morning in room 122 of University Hall, a small cluster of speakers discuss the effects and interplay of a host of social ills -- child poverty, violence, illiteracy, malnutrition.

They are not sociologists or graduate students but seventh through ninth graders enrolled in Northwestern's Civic Education Project.

Rather than merely spouting statistics or news accounts, however, the students weave in information they gleaned from three weeks spent in Chicago working hand in hand with the people who are living the problems.

"I was shocked, it was so real," says Ross Avila, a ninth grader from Toledo, Ohio, on the last day of the project. "I never talked to anyone with AIDS before. It opened my eyes."

Under the auspices of Northwestern's Center for Talent Development, the Civic Education Project links students with soup kitchens, homes for the elderly and Head Start centers, among other social programs, during school breaks and summers.

"We try to bridge the gap between traditional learning and real life ... to make students understand that learning doesn't stop when the bell rings," says Rob Donahue (S97), program director of the Civic Education Project. He launched the program after witnessing the soaring popularity of Northwestern's Alternative Spring Break, a project he spearheaded in 1994 as an undergraduate.

Having grown up in Fort Mitchell, Ky., Donahue was interested in the issues of rural poverty and later the urban variety, especially as they relate to welfare reform. So he gathered a mix of peers from Northwestern and headed to Appalachia. "It was an amazing experience," he says.

Since then, Northwestern's student-led ASB program has expanded to more than 25 sites throughout the country, ranging from a Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma to a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. Similar programs sprang up at other college campuses throughout the 1990s.

Donahue, feeling that students should be exposed to diverse peers, issues and communities at an earlier age, founded the Civic Education Project in 1997. The program provides intense service learning projects for promising pre-college students during their winter, spring and summer breaks from school.

The Civic Education Project first targeted students entering 10th through 12th grades. This past summer, the program expanded to include a course for junior high-age students. "Overall, the group has been fantastic," Donahue says. "You see their eyes opening up."

More than 30 enrolled in the courses offered last summer. About half receive financial aid for the $1,900 cost of the program. Throughout all of CTD, at least 10 percent of students arrive with the help of some financial aid, much of which comes from corporate sponsors.

On the last day of the courses, the students made group presentations, discussing social ills of their choosing. The assignment included formulating a list of 10 things people their age could do to address the problems, such as writing to Congress, volunteering at agencies and researching topics further on the Internet.

So much of their experience is emotional, Donahue notes, that he and his staff work to ensure the students get the bigger picture behind the feelings the experiences evoke. "We do a lot of reflection afterward," he says, "and facilitate conversation."

Many, but not all, of the students are gifted. "We are looking for kids with leadership potential and civic involvement," Donahue says.

Center for Talent Development director Paula Olszewski-Kubilius (GSESP80, 83) notes that service learning helps develop students by pushing them out of the familiar realm of school and family. The result, she says, is that they end up learning just as much about themselves as about the social issues they delve into.

Already the program has received national recognition, garnering a Social Entrepreneur Award from Youth Services America, a group committed to increasing the quality and quantity of volunteer opportunities for youth.

The biggest gauge of its success, perhaps, comes out of the mouths of the young people themselves. "I think about things differently now," says Amanda Ryan, a poised eighth grader who delivered an articulate report on children in poverty.

"I was terrified of community service from some bad experiences," says Avila, who reported on HIV/AIDS. "This has been a positive experience. I want to go back [to my hometown] and volunteer."

On the last day, Ryan, Avila and other students talked excitedly about joining civic clubs in the fall or participating in peer mediation.

"I'm going to public school for the first time, and I'm looking forward to joining some [socially conscious] clubs," says Ellen Yastrow of Deerfield, Ill. "This motivated me."

While Donahue notes that volunteering has reached an all-time high among young people, political involvement is plummeting.

The goal, he adds, is not necessarily to mold the next wave of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers or social workers, but to touch the minds and hearts of future lawyers, CEOs and educators so they won't just be vaguely aware of social problems but will have had up-close and personal experiences with them. -- L.K.