Florida Gulf Coast University sets a standard for service

One of the winners of the 2011 Higher Education Civic Engagement Awards from the Washington Center for Internships was Florida Gulf Coast University. I served on the selection committee and recently had occasion to reread FGCU’s proposal. Their work deserves national attention. (By the way, the awards had nothing to do with internships; it’s just that the Washington Center chose to give a national prize for civic engagement.)

FGCU enrolls more than 11,000 students who each pay $5,352 in tuition, about 10 percent of the sticker price of an Ivy League education. The college requires all students to conduct 80 hours of community service and to take a semester-long course on the “environmental, social, ethical, historical, scientific, economic, and political influences” on sustainability in Southwest Florida. Thus all students have an academic basis for work that involves local environmental issues. Many of the 200 community agencies that are partners of the University emphasize those issues.

In addition, 40% of all undergraduates are Arts and Sciences majors, and they all gave to take a course on the Foundations of Civic Engagement, which includes reading assignments, community service projects, and a pre/post self-assessment of students’ “understanding of civic engagement.”

The Honors program also offers courses that combine community service with relevant research. In its proposal, FGCU cited impressive examples (such as students working with migrant farmworkers in an organizing campaign against the tomato industry) and statistics, such as its annual 132,451 total hours of student service-learning.

FGCU was founded in 1997, so it had the opportunity to create a coherent, campus-wide program oriented toward service with an environmental theme. It would be much harder for an established institution to shift the whole curriculum in that direction.

Although I am a civic engagement specialist, I don’t believe that every student must perform community service or conduct community-based research. Taking Shakespeare seminars is also good. I would argue that the kinds of courses FGCU provides are examples of purposeful, challenging, collaborative experiences that advance a larger cause (in this case, civic environmentalism) and that engage both mind and spirit. The same could be said of directing a film or working in a biology lab. But we can’t just leave it to students to find their own ways to such challenging experiences. FGCU should be applauded for creating a coherent structure, on a large scale, at a low cost.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.