This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utahns, while famously industrious, have a strong sense of compassion and caring for others. Investing in the common good seems to be habitual in our state. No matter what the issue might be illiteracy, homelessness, food security, environmental degradation or limited access to quality education and health care, Utahns have a long history of uniting, volunteering and giving time and treasure to help out and improve conditions.
Where does that sense of civic responsibility come from? And, more importantly, what are the most effective ways to foster civic responsibility in younger people who are seeking their paths in the world? Certainly young children learn from and mimic their families, teachers and spiritual leaders. Each source can provide guidance about the importance of community and citizenship and how everyone can and should contribute to the betterment of society. The University of Utah commits itself to playing a vital role, too. Through its work and activities, the U. serves as a strong "civic engine" for the state and its communities.
The U. has a unique capacity to produce graduates who are active and engaged citizens ideally, citizens who think, speak and act civilly, intentionally, mindfully and compassionately. Our state needs engaged college graduates who not only thrive in their professions and contribute economically, but also add to our collective civic health and vibrancy. Fostering good citizens requires helping college students make the connections between the content of their courses and the ways in which they can each contribute to strong local economies, social and political well-being and collective action that will solve our most pressing community problems.
Integrating community-engaged learning into academic courses across academic majors is one way that the U. provides deeply engaged learning experiences for students, makes a positive difference in communities and fosters good citizenship. Community-engaged learning is a teaching technique that places students in an educational service activity that meets identified community needs. Professors encourage students to reflect on community assets and issues, and then begin to work with partners toward solutions.
Adrienne Cachelin is an associate professor in environmental and sustainability studies at the U. Throughout one of Cachelin's courses, "Eating for Justice, Sustainability and Health," students collaborate with staff at the Glendale-Mountain View Community Center and the Salt Lake City School District as well as local residents, many of whom are refugees, to answer questions like: Why do healthier food choices tend to be more expensive and less accessible to certain individuals in our community? Why did the U.S. Department of Agriculture designate Glendale a "food desert?"
Inspired by the course, two of these students, Mary McIntyre and Kate Harrington, took their learning a bit further. They met with neighborhood residents, asked good questions, made their own discoveries, sought and received funding from the Bennion Center and Office of Undergraduate Research and then published a fascinating cookbook, "Savor: Stories of Community, Culture, and Food." The book shares recipes and stories of the local Glendale neighborhood residents. "Savor" has sold more than 600 copies, with all of the proceeds going back to the Glendale-Mountain View Community Center.
More than 300 community-engaged learning courses, like this one, are taught in various disciplines at the U. Data show that students enrolled in community-engaged learning courses develop and maintain a better appreciation for diversity and ethical decision-making, increased complex problem solving skills, better critical thinking and analytic reasoning, intercultural competence and lifelong habits of service and civic participation. These are skills and habits that companies want and our communities need. Students who complete community-engaged learning courses generally earn higher grade point averages and are more likely to graduate than students who do not. These courses are an important part of a comprehensive education.
The U. is making a strong investment in student community-engaged learning, which powers the civic engine needed to strengthen Utah communities an engine that produces graduates armed with compassion and skills to change the world.
Dean McGovern is executive director of the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center at the University of Utah.