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The NASPA Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education recently named Weber State University a model school and lead institution for civic learning and democratic engagement.
WSU was one of only 50 lead institutions picked as part of an initiative from the United States Department of Education that started in January of 2012.
“From that initiative, large organizations like NASPA have been embracing this initiative to get higher education reconnected to — I think of it as its roots,” said Brenda Kowalewski, the Community Involvement Center director at WSU. “. . . That’s really what higher ed was crafted to do — to create an educated citizenry.”
As part of the initiative, WSU, alongside other universities, will showcase what it does to promote civic learning and democratic engagement. Volunteering is critical to the events and projects being showcased. Some of the things that will be highlighted that have already been done this semester include voter registration drives, the American Democracy Project, Constitution Week, the debate watches and the upcoming Deliberative Democracy Day.
“There’s not a set standard for what institutions do,” Kowalewski said. “Institutions showcase what they do and teach other institutions how to do it.”
Kowalewski also said one of the goals is to highlight student leaders in the volunteering program.
Andrew Gardiner, the WSU Student Association president, said WSU student leaders are greatly involved with the volunteer work WSU does. Their recent activities include volunteering at Antelope Island, cleaning up the trailheads behind the main WSU campus, and Project LEAD.
“You’re given so much, and you’re given an opportunity to be in a role of leadership — the least you can do is give back to those who aren’t as fortunate or who don’t have the same circumstances as you,” Gardiner said. “And I think it’s our human nature. It’s good to give back and serve people and forget about yourself.”
Kowalewski said WSU is set apart from the other 50 institutions in the way it approaches volunteer work and how it can be connected to student learning.
“The first thing I would say is we are a unique center nationally, in the sense that we have both academic affairs and students affairs housed in one center,” she said. “It’s a very holistic approach to student learning. We recognize that learning occurs both inside and outside the classroom.”
Most other institutions that facilitate civic learning and democratic engagement are housing this type of work in student affairs through student life activities or in academic affairs through curriculum-type activities, and WSU has a model that integrates both of them.
“It gives us an opportunity to access students and have them get excited about getting engaged in the community in lots of different ways,” Kowalewski said.
Gardiner said WSU makes a real effort to relate to the community.
“I love how our institutions connect to the community,” he said. “It’s just the perfect way to support our mission as a university.”
Gardiner also said this benefits students leaders who are engaged in volunteer work in numerous ways.
“When you give back and you’re inside the community, the community sees that, and guess who comes to your games, or guess who comes to your events, or guess who gives back and supports you guys as a university when they see you doing stuff for them?” he said.
According to Kowalewski, there is “cross-pollination” between the co-curricular and curricular opportunities. By housing civic learning and democratic engagement experiences in one place, WSU has more opportunities to shape what students learn from those experiences, regardless of where they get those experiences in the community.
“I think it’s less confusing for the community,” Kowalewski said. “We’re better able to meet the needs of the community.”