Governors State Strives for Civic Engagement across the Curriculum, across Generations
Governors State University (GSU), one of the last “upper-division" schools in the United States, serves an undergraduate population composed entirely of transfer students, largely from south Chicago-area community colleges. GSU students are all commuters, mostly attending classes at night, with an average age of thirty-five and a range of work and family commitments outside of college. In this nontraditional context, GSU has maintained a strong commitment to civic engagement, striving to be “an intellectually stimulating public square, serving as an economic catalyst for the region, and being a model of diversity and responsible citizenship,” as its mission statement proclaims.
Starting in 2014, however, GSU will accept its first class of first-year students as it transitions into a four-year university, adding a new general education curriculum and residence halls as part of the change. “Our overall goal is to be a model twenty-first-century university,” GSU President Elaine Maimon says, “and a twenty-first-century university must have both the very strong high quality pathway for transfer students, and a full four-year undergraduate program that provides and incorporates the best of what undergrads benefit from in a full liberal arts-infused setting.”
Civic Engagement and Nontraditional Students
A crucial element of GSU’s approach to the civic education is based on an “infusion model,” with civic learning integrated throughout the curriculum rather than housed in specific courses or activities. “It can’t be something apart, something discrete,” Maimon says. “It has to involve learning things in the curriculum and thinking about how that connects to your life as a citizen, to your employment, and having experiences that promote that connectivity.”
This approach is tailored to a student body composed entirely of commuters, many of them older students with their own families and community obligations, says Aurelio Valente, dean of students and associate vice president of academic affairs. “When you look at a standard campus, the students that are most engaged are the traditional students, and adult students are the least engaged…. We have had to be more creative about the way we engage students, but we’re also engaging a group that wouldn’t normally be engaged on campus,” he says.
GSU has taken this challenge and made it into an advantage, he adds. The diversity of the student body and the life experience of so many adult students are real advantages in discussions about citizenship and democratic engagement. The same community obligations that may limit students’ ability to be active on campus add a depth of experience to the activities in which they are able to participate. “We have 475 veterans on campus,” Valente says. “When you talk about civic engagement to this population, it means something very different.” Maimon and Valente both point to GSU’s active student government—which has a grandmother as its current president and includes a large number of veterans and international students as members—as a model of civic engagement in practice.
Still, the addition of lower-division students, who are more likely to be traditional age, will mean adjustments. “I’ve been talking to student leaders about how to recruit students much younger than you,” Valente says. “I envision a student going to an organizational fair and going to a table to sign up for an activity—and they see someone who’s more like their uncle than their high school friend. That could be intimidating, so these students have to think about how they’re going to frame that.” The issue extends to classroom discussions, too, he says. “How do you encourage students living in an environment where they’re told not to debate their elders? But you need to have the debate, that’s how you foster dialogue.”
“This intergenerational opportunity we have is a unique opportunity when it comes to civic education,” Valente says. “These incoming students were maybe 8 -years-old when 9/11 happened, and they’ll be in class with veterans who maybe went to Afghanistan because of 9/11. These conversations that have to happen—because these students are in class together, having lunch together—offer a unique opportunity.”
There are many logistical reasons for going to a four-year model, including financial and marketing issues. But most importantly, Maimon says, the change is needed to better serve students in Illinois. GSU is the only regional public university between Chicago and Normal, more than a hundred miles to the south. To serve the diverse students of this region, Maimon says, GSU has to have both clear pathways for transfer students and a full four-year program.
The addition of first- and second-year students will mean GSU is serving students following three different paths to the bachelor’s degree, as well as master’s and doctoral students. The current student body is made up of both dual degree students from partner community colleges, and transfer student following other degree paths. Dual degree students complete their associate’s degrees through full-time attendance at one of nine partner colleges, with close advising from GSU staff to prepare them for study at GSU—or to a different university that might be a better fit. Other students come from different transfer paths, many of them attending college part time.
First- and second-year students will add one more constituency. But faculty and staff note that GSU is accustomed to serving a diverse student population. “We’re 45 percent students of color, 39 percent African American, 71 percent female, and our fastest growing population is already full-time undergraduate students, even before we’ve started to admit freshmen,” Maimon says. “We’ve had to get away from one-size fits all approach. We have to know what our larger goals are. The most important thing we do is the infusion of civic engagement into every course. Consciously, faculty look at not only how physical therapy students are skilled in therapy, but the larger civic questions about laws for disabled citizens. In statistics, say, the question might be how statistics are used and misused in influencing people’s votes?”
A Four-Year Curriculum
These questions and others will inform GSU’s new general education curriculum, which includes an emphasis on social responsibility. Many aspects of the curriculum are still being fleshed out, but a general education task force has submitted a summary of course requirements and learning outcomes to the faculty senate and is optimistic about approval. “We started looking at it from that very holistic experience,” says Ann Vendrely, a professor of physical therapy and chair of the task force. “We wanted to integrate things that happened the first year and thread them all the way through the fourth year, not just tack on some new things at the beginning that we hadn’t taught before.”
Starting over with a new four-year curriculum gives the opportunity to reinvest in the infusion model, Maimon says, focusing on connectivity of subjects. GSU has chosen a “low-choice” general education model by design—“you don’t give students every possibility but create a cohort learning group environment.” Much research suggests that the more structure students have early in their education, the better they are able to make decisions about majors and electives later in their educational careers, she adds.
In the cohort model, students are grouped in themed learning communities of up to three classes. These themes are not finalized, but civic engagement and sustainability are favored choices among the faculty. The thematic cohorts will not only assist students in making connections across disciplines but also ease the social transition from high school to college, as students quickly grow comfortable with the other members of their cohort. Students will complete forty-two to forty-four credits in communication, mathematics, physical and life sciences, humanities and fine arts, and social and behavioral sciences in this integrative curricular model.
An emphasis on high-impact educational practices is a key part of new curriculum, too, says Kerrie Morris, a professor of English and member of the general education task force. The curriculum is structured so as to ensure each student will participate in five of ten high-impact practices during his or her general education, with an emphasis on writing-intensive courses in the first year. GSU is using ten high-impact practices identified by AAC&U as it develops its curriculum. Teaching these courses will be an adjustment for faculty who may have taught only upper-division courses for most of their careers. “In my department, most people have only taught freshmen composition in grad school, never as a full time faculty, and some have never taught composition,” Morris says. But professional development has been a priority, and Morris and Vendrely agree most faculty members are optimistic and excited about the general education program.
Morris, who also sits on the assessment task force, says “we’re looking very much at the arc of students’ career” as they plan new assessment models, though she notes that she has pushed for assessments on a program level rather than across the university—“it’s almost impossible to assess writing out of context, and I suspect you can’t assess these other things out of context either.” From a technical standpoint, the assessment task force is committed to using e-portfolios, though there remain logistical challenges here, too. Still, portfolios are “great for assessment, but even more importantly for students—to see what they’ve done over a career. [Portfolios] invite them to see that something that happens in history relates to accounting, because they’ve got these things side by side. They can take this and go to a grad school or an employer and say, see I’m really great with research, and demonstrate this across disciplines.”
As part of the transition to a full four-year university, Governors State has added on-campus housing not only for first-year students but also upperclassmen and graduate students, which will contribute to a civically engaged community on campus (Photo courtesy of Governors State University).
Creating a Campus Community
One of the biggest changes at GSU will be the addition of residence halls in 2014. The new halls will serve not just incoming first-year students, but also upper-division and graduate students. While GSU does not intend to provide family housing, the residence halls will have a "family atmosphere,” as students of different ages and levels of study will share living space. Both Maimon and Valente points to the potential benefits of practicing civic engagement in the campus community and note that some housing will be themed to correspond with the lower-division learning communities. “One theme will likely be sustainability,” Maimon says, “a great theme for residence halls because they can put those principles into action in community gardens and other aspects of their living circumstances.”
Maimon emphasizes that the changes underway will help GSU serve all students, including transfer and commuter students. “This century is different—things have been turned completely around in the way we think about higher education in the United States,” Maimon says. “The fact is that we have to help all students, no matter what their starting point, complete a quality education.”
For more information about programs and changes at GSU, visit the university's website. Find more resources on civic learning and curricular development from AAC&U.