Listening to the future

Paul Markham, a faculty member and director of the ALIVE Center for Community Partnerships at Western Kentucky University, wrote this guest post on a recent conversation he had with college student leaders. The ALIVE Center promotes community development across Central Kentucky through campus and community partnerships.

Petition to support the UN Millenium Development Goals.jpg I spent an evening with six Western Kentucky University (WKU) students. My goal was not to teach a class or orchestrate a co-curricular event; rather, I was there only to listen. After simply asking them to describe their passions and what they hope to accomplish during their time at WKU, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was listening to the future of our university and our society at large.

I have always had an empathetic nature and wanted to help others. I’ve found that this is the most effective way to do that – getting students involved in their communities. It takes an entire community to do something to truly help others. Instead of doing random acts of kindness here or there, we really have to be in the mindset that our everyday actions are what truly makes a difference. – Rebecca Katz

Following the 2008 election, a number of publications have focused on the increase in civic engagement among the millennial generation. While following electoral politics and voting is important to these young leaders, they are thinking much more in terms of local organizing and empowerment.

During my second year of college I wrote a newspaper article about MLK day and human rights. At that point I realized that there were so many issues on the local level – there are things that I could be doing right here, right now. The notion of “saving people” always sat really uncomfortably with me. I have come to realize that it’s not about saving anybody. It’s about working together to achieve justice. – Greg Capillo

For these students, the university is a space where character is shaped in significant ways. All of the students that I spoke with have achieved a high level of academic excellence in their classroom studies, but are sensitive to the crucial growth that occurs outside the classroom.

When I came to college I found others who shared the same sort of passion and hope that, in a world with so many problems, things could be better and that we as young people can determine our own future – we can write our own history. It has been very inspirational being around all these people that care so deeply about these things. – Matt Vaughn

When I got to college, I realized that just being in a classroom and learning “stuff” wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to learn by doing it and being involved. I have learned so much here that did not come from a textbook. I think that it is hard not to care about important social issues when you are surrounded by people that are passionate and knowledgeable. – Sara Moody

Sara Ferguson reminded me of the practical impact that students can bring to our campus and community. Her leadership with “GreenToppers – Students for Campus Sustainability” culminated in the adoption of a campus-wide energy policy. Ferguson noted that “The education and knowledge combined with our constant communication with administration, I feel, has been our contribution to the energy policy. It hasn't been about protests and petition, but rather about bringing all stake holders together and coming up with a tangible goal for everyone to meet.”

I was impressed with the depth of vision that these students articulated. They see their work as having a lasting impact on WKU.

I think that a lot of the work that we are doing has led the leaders and administrators of this university to think about institutionalizing civic engagement. Of all the things that we are doing, I am most proud of the type of education that we are developing here – a place where students can learn about the state of the world and how to change it. – Joey Coe

I want to see a day when, like school spirit, we develop a sense of community spirit and that is what is expected from WKU students. – Sara Moody

As our campus and communities come together to shape the future of our society, this conversation serves a critical reminder of the task of higher education and the role that we all have in creating a more just and sustainable world.

Editor's note: Western Kentucky University is one of 16 state colleges and universities around the country working together as part of the Civic Agency Project to integrate citizenship with coursework. The effort goes beyond service learning and involves staff and community members as well as faculty and students. The Civic Agency Project is coordinated by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs