Working on Community
“The role of a university is as a place of public purpose, not just a place for individual benefit. Our commitment to being a place of public purpose means developing in our students the skills, attitudes, and outlooks to serve the public good.” —President Paul J. Zingg
Junior Jaypinderpal “Jay” Virdee believes that CSU, Chico students are built for service. “If students are given a chance to make a difference in their community, they're going to take it,” he says.
Each year on Cesar Chavez Day, hundreds of students prove Virdee right. Instead of spending the state holiday catching up on sleep, they gather early on the Kendall Hall lawn to fuel up on bagels and coffee before setting out on a community-wide cleanup benefiting local schools, churches, nonprofits, and city parks.
“We get the day off for a reason,” says Virdee, AS Commissioner of Community Affairs (and 2012–2013 AS president-elect), who helps coordinate the Cesar Chavez Day of Service with other University stakeholders, “and doing community service gives us an opportunity to respect what Cesar Chavez accomplished.”
As students paint buildings, pick up trash, weed flower beds, mentor students, and wash fire engines, they are reminded of Chavez's tireless service to migrant farmworkers. The Day of Service, which began as a student-led initiative in 2010, has grown to include faculty, staff, the city of Chico, and the community.
At CSU, Chico, service defines campus culture and is proudly passed from generation to generation. In 1949, returning GIs founded a Chico chapter of the co-ed service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. Service was institutionalized in 1966 when students formed Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE). Close to a half-century later, more than 2,000 students volunteer through CAVE each year, generating 60,000-plus hours of community service to seniors, children, animals, and the environment. Each year, students also raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for children's cancer, host public awareness fairs for the community, and tackle construction projects for people in need.
But student service is not confined to volunteering. In 2012, CSU, Chico was designated, for the fifth time in six years, a member of the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, highlighting the University's civic engagement activities. The Office of Civic Engagement supports faculty incorporating service and other civic activity into their courses. Similarly, First-Year Experience, directed by English professor Thia Wolf, helps new students realize their capacity to bring about change. The approach to civic development she and her colleagues have devised at CSU, Chico is called Public Sphere Pedagogy (PSP).
Michael Briand, director of Civic Engagement, says Public Sphere Pedagogy “connects student coursework to public arenas in ways that illustrate how scholarship informs responsible civic life.” The annual Town Hall Meeting (see video) is one example of PSP in action. Throughout the semester, students study a contemporary public policy issue, conducting research and preparing to meet with local stakeholders. They ultimately present and discuss their findings with professors, community members, and their peers in a public town hall meeting.
PSP assists in students' development as civic actors, encouraging them to become informed voters, policy advocates, and public speakers, says Wolf. Over the next several years, as the University's new General Education program is implemented, PSP will help students make the transition to more complex and more challenging forms of community engagement and personal civic development. A $250,000 W.M. Keck Foundation Grant received in 2010 will support new courses and civic learning opportunities, establish Civic Learning Institutes for faculty, and create the Neighborhood Connections Project, a community-situated laboratory where students learn to help neighborhoods establish civic networks.
“Service honors the provider as much as it benefits the receiver,” says Paul Zingg, pointing to the important role service plays in student learning and development. William Loker, dean of Undergraduate Education and senior international officer, reports “the data show students who participate in the Town Hall Meeting persist at significantly greater rates than students who do not.” He adds that there is “evidence to suggest that when professors integrate civic engagement pedagogies into their classes, students' level of understanding of course subject matter also increases significantly.”
Community engagement and serving the public good will continue to be an integral part of the CSU, Chico mission—which has only strengthened over time. “Our aim is to begin the transformation of the American university by transforming the way our campus, our city, and our region interact,” says Briand. “Through dialogue and deliberation, and through partnerships with the residents of the North State, we seek to become ‘one campus, one city, one community.’ ”