May 2012
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The public service major at Rutgers–Newark combines scholarship from the humanities and social sciences with applied learning through internships and service learning projects with community partners. (Copyright Rutgers University, Newark)

“Public Service as Responsible Citizenship”—The Public Service Major at Rutgers University–Newark

When the School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) at Rutgers University–Newark began designing an undergraduate program to complement the school’s masters’ and doctoral programs, the chancellor of the university gave the faculty a particular charge: “to come up with a curriculum that really engaged the whole community,” says Sharon Stroye, assistant dean of SPAA. The new program should help students understand their immediate environment and recognize the contributions they could make, and foster an understanding of wider issues happening not just in Newark but around the state, nation, and world.

The faculty ultimately conceived of public service as the organizing principle for the new undergraduate program. The Public Service major, which enrolled its first cohort of students in the fall of 2008, both provides an introduction to the role of the public sector and asks students to investigate broader questions about contemporary social issues. The program’s curriculum combines service learning and internships with academic theory in order to give students a diverse skill set. That’s particularly important given the rapidly changing economy and shifting work patterns students will face, says Kyle Farmbry, director of undergraduate studies in SPAA.

“Students aren’t just training to get this degree and dive into a public sector career,” he says. “Students may go on to work in the public sector, or they may work in the private or nonprofit sectors, but they’ll find themselves interacting with all sectors. They have to have an understanding of the language of the three sectors and be able to think fast enough that they can figure out what people want and come up with solutions to the different challenges they’ll face.”

Developing a Public Service Curriculum

One thing the faculty didn’t want to do “was teach an undergraduate version of our Master of Public Administration curriculum,” Farmbry says. “We had an opportunity to think about the core things that we might want people to know about public service … it enabled us to think about a curriculum that was a little bit broader, and allowed us to bring in the humanities in a way different from what you can do in a graduate program, and to tie in with different areas of teaching across the undergraduate curriculum.”

All public service majors must take a core of five courses, including the introductory course “Public Service as Responsible Citizenship” and courses on urban issues in both the US and around the world. Students round out their degrees with upper-level electives such as “Health and Social Justice” and “The Arts and Culture of Public Service.”

Internships and service learning are also key components of the curriculum. Majors must complete two internships with governmental agencies or nonprofit groups. SPAA has partnerships with over 250 organizations in the greater Newark area, and Stroye and Farmbry recently laid the groundwork for an international internship program based in Cape Town, South Africa.

Even the more traditional academic courses involve community engagement and service learning. In “Public Service as Responsible Citizenship,” which meets twice a week, Tuesday meetings are spent in the classroom discussing readings, while Thursdays are spent helping various community partners complete projects. Similarly, “The Global Urban Experience” focuses heavily on research and academic theory, but students also develop projects to assist the various cities they study. One recent section of the course worked with an organization in Ghana dealing with child trafficking, and the students collected resources to send to that organization.

Providing real and valuable assistance to the community partners is an important part of the internships and service-learning projects, Stroye says—students should be actively contributing to community initiatives. By the same token, students must also be able to tie internships and service projects back to the theory they’ve learned in their classes, and all internships conclude with an academic presentation made before advisors. This emphasis on experiential learning has attracted large numbers of students from other majors to public service courses, and other departments on campus are increasingly looking to SPAA for guidance and assistance in getting their students involved in community projects, Stroye says.

Signature Pedagogies

The program features heavy internship requirements and focus on real-world service and professional development, and the faculty also strive to make sure these elements are complemented by “as many of the best elements of traditional liberal arts education” as they can integrate into the major, Farmbry says. The program is actively working against what he sees as a general trend in universities to move away from the liberal arts, especially in programs like public affairs that often provide good career preparation “but ignore such issues as developing critical thinking skills, which is of real value.”

In his own courses, Farmbry aims to incorporate more elements of the humanities, including exposure to historical social thinkers such as Rousseau, and give students as many opportunities to write as possible. Writing-intensive courses are a required part of the major, and many upper-level courses require research papers of up to twenty-five pages, complemented by literature reviews and case studies. Strong writing and research skills are part of the transferrable skill set the program aims for its students to develop, Stroye says—“we want to enhance their critical thinking and analysis of situations, regardless of their interests.” Many public service students are double majors, and they bring a wide range of ambitions and interests to the program,. Regardless of their chosen field, Stroye anticipates that public service majors “will have the skills to … be a valuable resource to the organization they’re working for.”

In addition to writing-intensive courses, group assignments and team-based fieldwork are signature pedagogies of public service courses. Group assignments teach students how to cooperate on complex tasks, and the diverse range of students in public service classes ensures that they have plenty to teach each other, Stroye says. SPAA has benefitted especially from the increasing number of business students enrolling in public service courses, she says, because they bring a different mindset and a complementary set of skills that can be very useful in approaching public sector issues. She points to a project designed by two public service majors and a business major that addressed the lack of clean water in some towns along the US–Mexico border. The students came up with “an excellent public-private partnership that I’m sure could be funded if they presented to the right organizations,” she says.

Public service students are required to complete at least two internships to graduate. However, many other classes also involve elements of service learning with community and global partners. (Copyright Rutgers University, Newark)

The Benefits of Engaging with Diversity

Group tasks, however, can be particularly challenging given the enormous diversity of public service students. Rutgers–Newark routinely ranks as one the most ethnically and racially diverse campuses in the US; students also range widely in age, enrollment status, and level of economic privilege. Students have to navigate these differences to work together, and “instructors have to design assignments that meet the students where they are,” Stroye says. Still, she and Farmbry agree that students can learn a lot from this process.

Farmbry, who has taught at other institutions, says the class discussions are particularly dynamic at Newark because of the diversity. “I have students who talk about refugee experiences, and it’s slightly different, because they’ve lived that life and had to deal with the challenges of becoming integrated into a community that is as curious about them as they are about the community … the discussions we have and the papers people write are all a lot more exciting.”

Still, the diversity of the student body has created some logistical challenges, particular when it comes to financial matters. “I would like to see more of our students doing activities off campus, internships in areas within Newark and across country and in other countries,” Farmbry says, “but one challenge is that some students can easily afford to create these opportunities and some can’t. There’s a constant question of how we open up the door for students who really want to do unique things but can’t afford to do so. With that challenge in mind, though, I want to see them doing as much as possible.”

Stroye says community engagement can make a huge difference for students and refers to a recent transfer student, an economics major at another campus who was struggling before he began the public service program. “He was a good economics major, but I’m not sure it was something he wanted to do. He selected public service as his major after transferring from the more residential New Brunswick campus to this inner city, largely commuter campus, and he immediately made the Dean’s List, for the first time ever. He found his way to an internship with the Covenant House, which provides services to students who are similar in age to him, but homeless. It was a change in who he was—that interaction with the community can have a great impact on how well students are doing academically.”

“That is something we foster, that engagement in the community,” she continued. “It has an impact on how students see themselves—they learn to appreciate their own life. It reflects in how they do, not just public service classes but across disciplines.”

For more information about the public service major at Rutgers–Newark, visit the SPAA web page. For more resources on service learning and civic engagement, visit AAC&U’s pages on civic learning and diversity and inclusive excellence.

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