The 2005-06 academic year has been declared the Year of Public Engagement at The University of Iowa, a designation that highlights the way the University contributes to a vibrant and caring society, in Iowa and elsewhere. UI students have a strong history of volunteering and serving the community, and now students and faculty are looking for ways to make civic engagement an integral part of higher education, not just an extracurricular activity. Parent Times spoke with Mary Mathew Wilson, the newly appointed coordinator of the Civic Engagement Program Office, about how the University is supporting student and faculty interest in community service.
Why is the University rededicating itself to civic engagement?
There’s a growing consciousness and awareness of colleges and universities needing to be engaged in local communities. As a public university, we have to demonstrate that we have an institutional commitment to public service. The University continually contributes to the state by building the citizenry. We are part of a national group of colleges and universities called Campus Compact, which is dedicated to empowering schools like ours to be actively dedicated to building future generations’ interest in serving the greater good.
Not only is civic engagement important to University leaders, parents and students are actively seeking service learning programs at colleges and universities. Students are coming out of high school with a lot of volunteering experiences and they’re looking for a school where they can continue those activities in college. Having a civic engagement program will help Iowa continue to recruit such civic-minded students.
Students have been asking for this for a long time, and the students who have already been active in increasing volunteerism on campus—such as the students involved in the 10,000 Hours program, Dance Marathon, the Greek community’s active philanthropy programs, and other groups—are really collaborating with the University to enrich the culture of service here at Iowa.
What’s the difference between service learning and volunteering?
They’re both important ways to serve communities, but they are distinctly different in the university setting. Service learning is an educational experience within an official UI course, designed by the instructor to integrate practical, service-oriented experiences into courses that might otherwise take place entirely in the classroom. An effective service learning course will give students the opportunity to learn course content in a new way by partnering with community organizations to solve pressing community needs. It also will be a challenging academic exercise, requiring students to formally evaluate and process the experience.
Volunteering is equally important if less structured. Students can seek out volunteering opportunities that allow them to explore their own interests in the service of others. Though academic credit isn’t awarded for volunteering, any time you’re somewhere in the community working with someone, you learn something.
Engagement is one of five goals articulated in the 2005-10 strategic plan for The University of Iowa, The Iowa Promise. It links well with two other goals contained in the plan: undergraduate education and diversity.
The Civic Engagement Program Office is in the Iowa Memorial Union. What does it offer students?
One of the first things we’re doing is creating the Volunteer Link, an interactive web tool that students can use to find volunteer opportunities in the community. Students will have easy access, and community organizations can go online to update information about their programs and volunteer needs.
Perhaps most important, our office is a physical place for students to go to and talk to someone. We’ll be available to help students clarify and explore aspects of volunteer work that they may not be aware of. In collaboration with the UI Center for Teaching, I’ll also be working with faculty who are developing service learning components in courses.
What kinds of collaborations with community organizations are possible?
My goal is to visit community partners each semester and really listen to them, learn about their priorities and needs, and help them build relationships within the University. It’s happening already. In a business course this summer, students were looking for a group that needed help evaluating and creating training materials. Soon after the professor told me about his class’s needs, I met with the local Habitat for Humanity organization, and it turns out they are in need of exactly that type of expertise. These types of partnerships are so great. Students can work on projects and try out theories but still have the faculty oversight that makes this kind of experience an integral part of the curriculum.