Diversity and Democracy

Connecting Democratic Engagement and Global Learning in General Education

While community colleges have historically existed at a crossroads between workforce development and opportunities for student transfer to four-year institutions, Middlesex Community College (MCC) is currently at a crossroads of integrating democratic engagement with global learning in our general education curriculum. At MCC, we see these two crossroads as converging at a single intersection, particularly in light of the current national focus on global economic competitiveness. To prepare students for today’s workforce, community college educators must promote forms of liberal learning that advance cross-disciplinary knowledge, cultural and global literacy, and awareness of individual and collective responsibility. At MCC, we believe that democratic engagement and global learning are essential for all students to gain perspective on their academic, social, and career choices.

Nowhere are today’s educational demands more evident than in Massachusetts, where the growing knowledge economy has created a gap between the skills needed for available jobs and the educational backgrounds of potential employees (Bundy, Ansel, and Snyder 2013). Importantly, many unfilled positions require not only advanced technical skills and knowledge, but also intercultural competencies that promote understanding among diverse communities at home and abroad. The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education recognized this reality in its Vision Project by naming citizenship preparation—including acquisition of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be active and informed members of global communities—as an expected outcome for institutions of public higher education (Massachusetts Department of Higher Education 2012).

To address current pressures on and goals for higher education, MCC began its general education reform process in 2011 with this question: How do we, as an institution, mobilize across a number of functional areas to provide general education that develops students’ intercultural competence, global understanding, and democratic engagement? In our experience, the answer involves working from the top down, from the bottom up, and side by side with our colleagues. Over the past two and a half years, we have furthered our general education reform efforts through our Bridging Cultures Project (BCP).

Bridging Cultures at MCC

Several years ago, MCC received two Bridging Cultures grants sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), one through AAC&U and The Democracy Commitment, and the other through the Asian Studies and Development Project (ASDP) of the East-West Center at the University of Hawai‘i. Although the two grants have focused on different outcomes, the processes they have inspired—of integrating multicultural and global literacies and civic learning into the general education curriculum—have connected campus conversations about three distinct topics: (1) civic learning, which to that point had been strongly associated with service learning; (2) global education, which had simply involved study abroad programs; and (3) inclusive education of historically marginalized groups, which had been addressed by several individual offices. It can be challenging to bring people together across these areas of commitment, in part because the parties involved may not have developed sufficient trust across units and may fear losing resources targeted to specific programs.

To develop trust and partnership across areas of responsibility, the leaders of the two Bridging Cultures grants have encouraged campus-wide conversations about students’ learning experiences and have provided seed money to promote innovative collaborations. Faculty and staff who have been directly involved in the BCP have developed curricular and cocurricular projects around the three themes described above, creating course modules, organizing campus speakers, designing and implementing community engagement projects, engaging in professional development workshops, attending master classes taught by global scholars, and serving as peer leaders or “fellows.” With the two grants serving as “tent poles,” the MCC Bridging Cultures Project has become a meaning-making mechanism supporting MCC’s work to articulate and collaborate around institutional priorities, drive curricular and instructional innovations, and establish a culture of assessment.

Connected Institutional Priorities

How do we develop and maintain engagement with the important concepts of civic learning, global education, and inclusive education? Again, the answer involves working from the top down, bottom up, and side by side. We have been fortunate to have long-standing commitments and vision for democratic engagement and global learning from senior leadership. Over twenty years ago, MCC President Carole Cowan established lasting partnerships with global learning organizations such as the East-West Center while steadfastly supporting the development of a robust service-learning program. These ongoing commitments have provided crucial supportive infrastructure for BCP initiatives as well as places to connect democratic engagement and global learning.

MCC’s commitment to democratic engagement and global learning has deep institutional roots, as articulated in our mission statement: “Recognizing equity and inclusion as the foundation for excellence and creativity, Middlesex Community College meets the evolving educational, civic, and workforce needs of our local and global communities.” Significantly, we created our mission statement using Appreciative Inquiry, a democratic process involving public forums and participation across the college community. Our institutional strategic plan directly addresses global and civic learning, with explicit connections to the goals and activities of departments such as global education and service learning. To evaluate and improve our efforts, the provost and academic leaders have gathered evidence of programmatic action in each strategic area and assessed this data on an annual basis, identifying gaps as areas for further resource development and allocation.

Working side by side and from the bottom up, faculty and staff members share best practices and personal commitments related to these priorities through ad hoc groups like the Faculty and Staff Association Diversity Committee. Within the array of options for engagement, the BCP has provided a menu of pedagogical approaches and resources that faculty can apply to their specific disciplines, including suggested speakers, films, curriculum modules, and professional development programs that connect with other areas of institutional support, such as the Service-Learning Department, the Global Education Department, and the Center for Leadership and Engagement. One example is the BCP dialogue project Inner Resources, through which members of the college community share personal stories of global and democratic engagement in videos that become available as pedagogical resources. The BCP has promoted and encouraged a variety of grassroots initiatives like this one, amplifying the voices of our diverse community of faculty, staff, and students beyond the scope of any individual effort.

Integrating Curriculum and Assessment

The BCP strongly complements MCC’s current work in general education reform. Each course in MCC’s new general education core must address at least three of our six Institutional Student Learning Outcomes (ISLOs): written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, personal/professional development, multicultural/global literacy, social responsibility, and critical thinking. In order to be included in the new general education core when it launches, courses must be approved through a shared governance process by fall 2014. When faculty members apply for general education status for their courses, they must provide examples of assignments designed to achieve specific ISLOs.

Assessment of the ISLOs is a central feature of our general education reform process. Too often, faculty see institutional assessment efforts as externally imposed, artificial, and disconnected from their goals for students, yet assessing student gains is crucial for institutions to not only gauge success but also improve effectiveness. Significantly, MCC grounds institutional assessment efforts directly in the work of the faculty who teach general education courses. Our initial pilot assessment seven years ago indicated that we cannot assess for particular outcomes unless the artifacts created by students directly address those outcomes. By connecting their curricula with specific ISLOs, faculty are not only creating courses with built-in assessment opportunities; they are also developing a capacity for meaningful assessment.

The BCP provides support to faculty who are submitting their courses for general education approval. Over forty curriculum modules have been developed through the BCP, and these modules provide rich examples of course content that engages students in their local and global communities. BCP assignments take advantage of our highly developed infrastructure for democratic and global work. Perhaps more importantly, these assignments provide inspiration for faculty members who are not directly involved with the BCP but who are, nonetheless, seeking to embed democratic thinking and global learning in their instruction.

As they submit their courses for general education status, faculty members become more explicit about their goals for students, tying ISLOs to course outcomes and building specific assignments that allow students to demonstrate those outcomes through meaningful work. For example, a BCP faculty member in geography who was preparing to submit her course for general education approval worked with her students to develop a day-long cultural exchange conference with the local Burmese refugee community. Students offered information on local and regional sites of interest to members of the community, who then shared their stories, including through a traditional dance performance. This conference led to student products and reflective essays that allowed the faculty member to assess students’ achievement of learning goals, while also considering feedback from members of the Burmese community—bringing together students, faculty, and community members at a crossroads of teaching and learning.

Converging Pathways

MCC now offers many opportunities for students and community members to see the overlap of global and democratic engagement that can be achieved through collaboration. One powerful example is our construction of a traditional Cambodian wood-fired kiln, a project that was the major focus of one BCP faculty fellow. Understanding that we serve a community that includes a large Cambodian population, we developed a multifaceted partnership between the college, the Lowell National Park, local public schools, and several funding sources to bring a master ceramist and expert in Cambodian traditional pottery to Lowell to help build the kiln. This art form, which dates back to the Angkor Kingdom (802–1431 AD), can now continue to flourish within our local Cambodian community, where it provides the basis for new ceramics curricula within the MCC arts department and local public schools.

Many faculty members who have participated in the BCP are developing deeper perspectives around the connections between assignment design and meaningful learning in the areas of democratic engagement and global learning. As we continue our work with the support of a Massachusetts Department of Higher Education grant to assess social responsibility, our experience of standing at the crossroads with the BCP allows us to see at the horizon the convergence of many roads into a single point. In our globalized world, we can no longer afford to see pathways to democratic responsibility, global literacy, and economic viability as separate and divergent. Instead, we must imagine them as converging to provide students with the knowledge they need to be liberally educated and socially responsible world citizens.

Bridging Cultures Project: Lessons Learned

Through Middlesex Community College’s Bridging Cultures Project and concurrent efforts to reform general education, we have learned several lessons about prioritizing, connecting, and assessing democratic engagement and global learning across the curriculum:

  • The tendency to address democratic thinking, global education, and social responsibility separately in higher education is a significant challenge to curricular reform. Mutual trust and shared goals are necessary to promote collaboration across these priorities.
  • Not every effort related to civic responsibility and global learning has to be connected. At the same time, with enough overlap between initiatives, it is possible to connect different ideas and activities naturally and organically.
  • Engaging faculty in national conversations about democratic engagement and global learning helps fuel interest in educational reform efforts.
  • AAC&U’s VALUE Rubrics (available at www.aacu.org/value/) are useful tools for discussing and customizing assessment.
  • Pervasive curricular change at a community college requires engaging contingent faculty as peer leaders, drawing on their interests and experiences and documenting their ideas as models.
  • General education reform is a marathon, not a sprint. Progress must be measurable and consistent, but need not be immediate or dramatic.


Bundy, Andrew, Dana Ansel, and Nancy Snyder. 2013. Closing the Massachusetts Skills Gap: Recommendations and Action Steps. Boston, MA: Commonwealth Corporation.

Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. 2012. Time to Lead: The Need for Excellence in Public Higher Education. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.

Carina Self is assistant dean of social sciences and service learning at Middlesex Community College. Dona Cady is dean of global education at Middlesex Community College. Matthew Olson is dean of humanities and social science at Middlesex Community College.

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