Diversity and Democracy

Civic Learning for All Students: An Institutional Priority

The twenty-first century is here, and higher education must prepare students for it by teaching them to build a sustainable future, to be scholars of community change, and to engage as responsible workers and citizens in a world defined by diversity. Kingsborough Community College (KCC) of the City University of New York is taking these goals seriously, giving students multiple opportunities across the curriculum and cocurriculum to develop their own agency while exploring the themes of diversity, community, and democratic thinking.

According to early results of the 2010 Census, the borough of Brooklyn has emerged as “one of the most diverse counties in the nation, and possibly the world” (Davidson 2010). This cultural transformation has affected KCC, the borough’s only community college. KCC students bring a global village to the college’s doorstep: more than half (51.9 percent) were born outside of the United States, and collectively, these students represent 142 national backgrounds and speak seventy-three primary languages. With this range of personal experiences and histories, KCC stands as a perfect representation of the contemporary context for citizenship: one that demands collaboration, contemplation, and meaningful civic interactions.

To nurture its diverse students and their capacities for citizenship, KCC is committed to civic and global engagement. This emphasis has proven transformative for KCC’s students, who have emerged as community leaders, outspoken advocates, and inquisitive changemakers.

Frameworks for Civic and Global Learning

KCC’s success in civic engagement is the result of system-wide commitment, institutional support, faculty development, and student affairs involvement, all geared toward providing opportunities for students to participate in curricular and cocurricular activities where they can develop the skills necessary for their academic and professional careers. KCC’s rationale for this work is grounded in a framework developed by Martha C. Nussbaum, who advocates an engaged, multicultural education infused with a focus on students’ development as humans (see, for example, Nussbaum 2010). Emphasizing the role of the humanities in such an education, Nussbaum suggests three capacities that are crucial to producing a responsible, globally-minded citizenry in a pluralistic democracy: critical thinking, proficiency in bridging and understanding different cultures and religions, and the ability to imagine and sympathize with the situations of others (Nussbaum 2009).

KCC has also been guided by the Essential Learning Outcomes recommended by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) as central to a quality, engaged liberal education. In addition to core intellectual and practical skills (inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, information literacy, and teamwork and problem solving), these Essential Learning Outcomes emphasize the importance of knowledge of human cultures and of personal and social responsibility, including civic knowledge and engagement—local and global, intercultural knowledge and competence, ethical reasoning and action, and applied knowledge in real-world settings (National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise 2007, 12).

KCC accepts as a fundamental principle that education should require students both to develop a sense of social responsibility and to actively participate in meeting the challenges of modern society through political activity, community service, engagement in leadership roles, and informed advocacy. KCC’s civic engagement efforts are designed to encourage these practices and behaviors.

Administrative Leadership

KCC’s work to establish civic engagement as part of its core philosophy began with recently retired college president Regina S. Peruggi. Intent on ensuring that civic engagement opportunities reach every KCC student, Peruggi established the KCC Center for Civic Engagement in 2010. To promote meaningful and widespread civic engagement experiences on campus, KCC’s administration also began talks in 2010 to introduce a civic engagement graduation requirement. Beginning in fall 2013, students must complete two civic engagement experiences, either by taking courses designated as Civic Engagement (CE) sections or by participating in certified CE experiences. This requirement positions KCC as one of the few colleges in the country to require civic engagement of all students. With it, KCC is demonstrating its commitment to providing students with the skills and competencies to succeed in the twenty-first-century workplace.

In addition to spearheading the graduation requirement, KCC’s administration is making civic engagement part of the campus culture, from the college’s award-winning annual Eco-Festival to its support for service learning, from a robust and social-justice-oriented common reading program to campus clean-up events and community service days. Through these initiatives, KCC is strengthening its vital role in the community and in the lives of its students.

Certainly, much of KCC’s success in civic engagement relies on the creativity, ingenuity, and passion of its faculty as they infuse the curriculum with meaningful projects that engage students in considering their roles at college and in their local and global communities. It also rests on critical support that student affairs staff provide to faculty as they plan and implement their projects. The college’s sustained success in these areas will require continued cohesion between the administration, faculty, student affairs educators, and students.

Faculty Development

Faculty development will be essential to KCC’s implementation of the new civic engagement graduation requirement. Fortunately, KCC has mapped a rich plan for faculty development through its participation in two recent projects: AAC&U and The Democracy Commitment’s project Bridging Cultures to Form a Nation: Difference, Community, and Democratic Thinking, which enables faculty to infuse civic learning themes into humanities and social sciences curricula; and Bringing Theory to Practice’s demonstration site grants, which funded KCC’s collaborative work with the CUNY Graduate Center to form Brooklyn’s Public Scholars, a project supporting community-based teaching and engaged scholarship focused on critical urban issues. These two projects, collectively involving over thirty faculty members across disciplines, have allowed participants to emphasize new themes in their courses, bringing needed depth and breadth to the treatment of civic engagement in the classroom. Using several high-impact practices (including service learning, undergraduate research, capstone projects, writing-intensive courses, learning communities, common intellectual experience, first-year seminars and experiences, and global/diversity learning) (Kuh 2008, 9–11), participating faculty are working with students to answer real-life questions.

KCC supplements its curricular work in these areas with enriching cocurricular activities. For example, since 2006, KCC has sent cohorts of students to participate in the National Model United Nations Conference, the Salzburg Global Seminar International Study Program, and the Long Island University’s Global College summer program in Costa Rica. (See China Moore’s article in this issue for a student’s reflection on how participation in these opportunities affected her.) These experiences are grounded in credit-bearing courses, ensuring that students are fully prepared for the trip and have essential opportunities to debrief and reflect when they return. Fully supported by the college with little to no cost to participating students, these programs shape students’ worldviews and deepen their critical thinking. As one KCC graduate attests, “I believe you get out of college whatever you make of it, but KCC makes a consistent effort to add value to our daily schedule. From reading circles to study abroad; from local trips to international conventions, I have broadened my view of the world in unexpected ways. It is because of this community college that I was able to find my passion and continue towards a bachelor’s degree.”

Student Affairs Involvement

KCC’s commitment to civic engagement draws strong support from collaborations between academic affairs and student affairs. One example of this collaboration is evident in the development of service-learning projects. To create such projects, KCC’s service-learning program, located within the student affairs division’s Career Services program, works with community-based organizations to identify specific community needs. The program then identifies faculty who might be able to address these needs and who have shown interest in incorporating service learning into their courses. Counselors from the service-learning program help faculty integrate service learning into their courses by providing sample syllabi, group reflection tips, and outcomes assessment plans. These counselors also visit classrooms to discuss the value of service learning and to address student and faculty questions. Through fluid relationships, the service-learning program serves as a resource to both students and faculty for the duration of the semester.

The Office of Student Affairs has also been instrumental in connecting KCC’s core philosophy of civic engagement to its work in career exploration and development. Through experiential learning programs such as internships, KCC’s Career Development Center (CDC) provides students with opportunities to serve in the communities where they reside. Additionally, the CDC has incorporated service learning into its one-credit career and life planning course. All in all, the Office of Student Affairs has worked rigorously to offer opportunities for students to participate in their communities and become engaged as local and global citizens.

System-Wide Commitment

KCC’s support for civic engagement is part of a broader commitment across the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Several of CUNY’s community colleges have embraced and received recognition for civic engagement and service-learning initiatives. For example, like KCC, the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) and LaGuardia Community College are involved with The Democracy Commitment, a national community college initiative that requires participating schools to take specific actions to advance civic learning and democratic engagement among students. These include training faculty and staff in civic engagement and expanding partnerships with community-based organizations and governmental agencies.

Recently, CUNY developed a system-wide effort to expand civic engagement opportunities at seven colleges within the system, including two community colleges (KCC and BMCC). Retired Chancellor Matthew Goldstein launched this new project in response to efforts he witnessed on the part of students during and immediately after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. The CUNY Service Corps will begin in fall 2013 with an initial cohort of approximately 750 to 1,000 students and nearly one hundred community partners. Building on what Goldstein described as “a proud tradition of service to New York City and its many communities” (2013), the CUNY Service Corps will be organized around four core themes that represent both opportunity and need: health, sustainability, education, and economics. Participating students will earn wages while working with organizations that provide direct services to the diverse communities of New York City, thus expanding their experiences with the world of work and further developing important civic engagement skills. At KCC, both academic and student affairs have been deeply involved in implementing this new program.

Transformative Results

Kingsborough Community College, recently named one of the top four community colleges in the nation by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, is helping its students develop a strong sense of social responsibility, leadership, empathy, and interpersonal skills that are essential in today’s workplace. Many students come to KCC with little prior experience in community involvement and civic engagement. But as we say of our honors program, we do not recruit honors students—we make honors students. In the same vein, we do not recruit civically engaged students to attend KCC, but instead instill civic engagement within every student who comes to KCC.

Heeding the wisdom of leading civic learning scholar David Scobey, KCC strives “to integrate the pathways of career, liberal learning, and civic education—to see all of them as woven into a single, integral process of student development and self-authoring” (Scobey 2012, 6). With cohesion between academic and student affairs, strong institutional and system-wide commitments, and plans for scaling up its programmatic efforts, KCC is ready to further affect the lives of its students and to cultivate essential capacities related to civic learning. By helping students develop attachments to their society and cognizance of their own agency in local and global communities, KCC is advancing important civic values.


Davidson, Justin. 2010. “Reasons to Love New York: 19. Because Brooklyn and Queens Are Competing to Be the Most Diverse Counties in America (and Maybe the World).” New York Magazine, December 12. http://nymag.com/news/articles/reasonstoloveny/2010/70074/.

Goldstein, Matthew. 2013. “Chancellor’s Message.” March 5. http://www1.cuny.edu/mu/servicecorps/2013/03/05/chancellor-message/.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 2009. “Education for Profit, Education for Freedom.” Liberal Education 95 (3). https://www.aacu.org/liberaleducation/le-su09/le-su09_Nussbaum.cfm.

———. 2010. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Scobey, David. 2012. “Why Now? Because This Is a Copernican Moment.” In Civic Provocations, edited by Donald W. Harward, 3–6. Washington, DC: Bringing Theory to Practice.

Reza Fakhari is associate provost for faculty and academic affairs at Kingsborough Community College. Brian Mitra is assistant dean of student affairs at Kingsborough Community College. Paulette Dalpes is deputy to the vice chancellor for student affairs and chief of staff at the City University of New York.

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