Diversity and Democracy

Programs that Build Civic Identity: A Study of Alumni

Colleges and universities often implement civic learning and democratic engagement initiatives with the goal of creating what Musil (2003) terms "generative citizens." But there is a gap in the literature when it comes to assessing these initiatives' long-term impact and efficacy. To begin filling that gap, we are studying alumni of civic learning programs to determine whether their lives demonstrate a commitment to active and involved citizenship that aligns with Knefelkamp's (2008) vision of civic identity.

Civic identity is a multifaceted and dynamic notion of the self as belonging to and responsible for a community or communities (Rubin 2007). Knefelkamp (2008) points to four essential characteristics of civic identity—that civic identity is "community work," an act of "cognitive complexity," "a holistic practice which integrates critical thinking and the capacity for empathy," and "a deliberately chosen and repeatedly enacted aspect of the self" (2–3). Our study seeks to understand how undergraduate civic engagement programs spur participants' development of civic identity, and whether these programs lead to citizens who "seek the well-being of the whole" (Musil 2003, 7).

Study Design

The study focuses on three cohort-based, multi-term civic learning programs: the Public Service Scholars Program at Stanford University, the Citizen Scholars Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the Public and Community Service Studies major at Providence College. (For information on these programs and their conceptual frameworks, see Mitchell et al. 2011.) These programs share a focus on building civic agency and on challenging participants to see themselves as engaged scholars and actors working for a better world. Each program recruits student participants and engages those participants as a cohort, providing curricular opportunities for dialogue, reflection, values clarification, and knowledge acquisition. All promote civic engagement through requirements that range from developing an honors thesis focused on a community issue to working with a community organization over multiple semesters.

We are using a mixed-methods approach (Creswell 2009) to study the three programs and their alumni. Working with each campus, we generated a database of almost four hundred alumni across the three programs. We then interviewed ten alumni from each program (selected to ensure diversity of race, gender, and cohort) using a loosely structured protocol. After transcribing these interviews and coding them for analysis, we used our initial findings to construct a survey that we distributed to alumni via email. The survey had a 49 percent response rate (192 respondents) and yielded preliminary data that will inform further quantitative analyses. In this article, we share findings related to career choice and the cohort experience.

Career Choice

Program alumni have largely entered careers that could be characterized as serving the public good. Among survey respondents, 39 percent were in community-oriented careers such as community organizing, nonprofit management, or social work. Another 26 percent were working in K–12 schools. Fifty-seven percent of respondents felt that their experiences in the programs influenced their career choices.

Fifty-three percent of surveyed alumni strongly agreed that "their personal values and beliefs are well integrated and aligned with [their] work and career." A Stanford University alumna speaking about her approach to work shared, "I think I've always had sort of underlying impetus in doing things for the greater good and to make people's lives better, and I feel like that carries through to today." Similarly, a University of Massachusetts alumnus explained, "[T]here is never a time where I want to be doing work that's not good work…making some kind of change." Alumni have found ways to align their values and beliefs with their professional work, and they see service as a core value. Fifty-seven percent of survey respondents strongly agreed that "the education and knowledge that [they] have gained should be used to serve others," and another 28 percent agreed with that statement.

Interview participants whose primary work was not community-based or defined by service for the public good described efforts to link their work to community or service. A Providence College alumna offered, "I feel like sometimes it's small gestures, but it's ways that I can still feel connected and feel that I'm able to still do good with the business that I have." Seventy-six percent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed "that professionals have a civic responsibility to improve society by serving others," and similar numbers reported participating in community or political work. Interviewees indicated feeling that as citizens they should, in the words of a University of Massachusetts alumna, "make an impact." A Stanford University graduate noted, "...in my sort of idealistic world, everyone should feel some kind of obligation to serve the outside world, no matter what they have or what their situation is."

The Cohort Experience

The cohort experience has been a prominent theme in our early analysis. Fifty-eight percent of survey respondents indicated that their program cohort was "extremely important" to their learning and development. As one Providence College graduate reflected, "It was great to have that kind of core of people around that you knew were kind of thinking the same way, were kind of in it all together." For one Stanford alumna, the "sense of community" amongst people who were working "to do something for the greater good" was "the most important thing about the program."

A University of Massachusetts alumna described the cohort as lessening her feeling of isolation as a person committed to community service. "You weren't the only weirdo getting up at... 7:30, 8:00 to go do something on a Saturday while everyone else is sleeping in till 2:00…we didn't feel so isolated…other people were also contributing." Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents agreed, identifying "having a group of students who shared your interests and concerns" as "extremely important to [their] learning."

The same University of Massachusetts graduate noted the importance of classroom conversations where cohort members with "different life experiences" helped each other "work though some of [their] assumptions." In the words of a Providence College alumna, the trust that participants built with their cohorts meant that they could "call each other out." Participants expressed confidence in their willingness to ask questions, be challenged, and "bring to the table [issues] that you were working through that you might not have brought up into [sic] a different class or with folks that you hadn't been learning with constantly" (a University of Massachusetts graduate). The data demonstrate that the cohort-based learning environment was extremely important to participants.


Each of the multi-term civic learning experiences we are studying endeavors to develop engaged scholars and actors working for a better world. Our preliminary analysis shows that the cohort aspect of these programs is important to students' learning and experiences, and that the civic identity students develop through these experiences persists in their lives after college. As we continue our analysis, we hope to better understand the programmatic and curricular elements that facilitate civic identity development, as well as the ways alumni exercise civic identity in their professional and civic circles.


Creswell, John W. 2009. Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Knefelkamp, L. Lee. 2008. "Civic Identity: Locating Self in Community." Diversity & Democracy 11 (2): 1–3.

Mitchell, Tania D., Virginia Visconti, Arthur Keene, and Richard Battistoni. 2011. "Educating for Democratic Leadership at Stanford, UMass, and Providence College." In From Command to Community: A New Approach to Leadership Education in Colleges and Universities, edited by Nicholas V. Longo and Cynthia M. Gibson, 115–48. Lebanon, NH: University of New England Press.

Musil, Caryn McTighe. 2003. "Educating for Citizenship." Peer Review 5 (3): 4–8.

Rubin, Beth C. 2007. "'There's Still Not Justice': Youth Civic Identity Development Amid Distinct School and Community Contexts." Teachers College Record 109 (2): 449–81.

Tania D. Mitchell is assistant professor of postsecondary teaching and learning at the University of Minnesota, Richard M. Battistoni is professor of political science and public and community service studies at Providence College, Arthur S. Keene is professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and John Reiff is director of civic engagement and service learning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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