Engaging Students Civically and Politically at Sinclair Community College

As an influential swing state in the last two presidential elections, Ohio has attracted substantial attention from candidates and their parties. During recent primary and general election campaigns, automated calls to home phones were commonplace; it was nearly impossible for residents to avoid political messaging. At Sinclair Community College, we responded to the charged political environment in a variety of ways. During both election seasons, student political clubs, the Ohio Fellows (a student political leadership project), and the Global Awareness and Action Club held numerous voter information and registration drives, taking advantage of the county polling center’s location across the street from the main campus to register voters. Many prominent political figures visited the Dayton area and campus, and students and faculty discussed the elections in political science courses.

Reflecting in part the success of these efforts, Sinclair has significantly high student voting rates. Yet while elections and political campaigns offer obvious opportunities to cultivate political awareness, Sinclair has successfully nurtured students’ engagement in civic and political life between elections as well, through grassroots and institutionally-sponsored initiatives.

Institutional Context

Sinclair Community College is part of the University System of Ohio. While the institution receives funding from the state, the majority of our students also receive public tuition support from the county, so the college is dually responsible to the public in a very real sense. The main campus is in downtown Dayton, a city with a rich history of innovation and a dire need for reinvention. Like most mid-sized Rust Belt cities, Dayton has suffered over the past several decades from a loss of factory jobs, urban flight, downsizing, and socioeconomic polarization of neighborhoods. At the same time, the city has a vibrant cultural and arts scene, a government committed to embracing diversity and welcoming immigrants, and access to a large network of colleges in Southwest Ohio charged with helping citizens become “employed, educated, and engaged” (SOCHE 2015).

Sinclair is a vital part of the community’s transformation. The institution was founded in 1887 by a Scottish immigrant, David Ainslie Sinclair, in partnership with the YMCA. The sense of community collaboration on which the college was founded has driven faculty and staff to think collaboratively in times of financial and institutional crisis. Throughout its long history, the college has remained faithful to its founder’s motto: “Find the need and endeavor to meet it.” Today, this challenge continues to give purpose to faculty and staff, who regularly reflect on the motto and infuse its philosophy into our discussions and decision making.

We believe that Sinclair’s culture has encouraged our students to become actively engaged in the cultural, economic, and political life of the region. Our institutional culture depends in part on initiatives that directly foster student engagement, some of which are sponsored by the provost’s office—for example, the Honors Program and Phi Theta Kappa (the international honors society of two-year colleges). Students involved in the Nu Pi chapter of Phi Theta Kappa are often hyperengaged in their communities. Each year, the chapter selects a hallmark issue as a point of focus for student activities. In past years, these issues have included food insecurity, homelessness, college completion, and Dayton’s history as a center for innovation. More than four hundred students participate in the Honors Program each year, and many of these students conduct research or service projects that help them develop a sense of ownership in their fields or disciplines and in their communities while learning valuable career and life skills.

We define success as occurring not only when students complete their degrees or certificates, but also when students are directly involved in the political and civic lives of their community. Our commitment to the civic and political spheres of education is rooted in a robust culture of faculty engagement. This culture arises from a campus-wide commitment to recognizing and rewarding faculty efforts, investing in service learning, and nurturing faculty-driven grassroots initiatives.

A Culture of Faculty Engagement

Like many two-year colleges, Sinclair adheres to the mantra community is our middle name. This view affects the college’s administrative culture, and, in turn, its faculty culture. Our annual faculty performance review, which is used for promotion and tenure discussions as well as merit-based recognition programs, requires faculty to report what they have contributed to the workplace and the community. This annual assessment of faculty performance recognizes community engagement in many areas, including scholarship, professional development, teaching and learning, student development, assessment, curriculum design, and workplace and community service. Salient contributions to community efforts figure prominently in many faculty members’ merit applications, with “service” understood as extending beyond one’s department or division to include one’s broader community. The review process, in use for several decades, continues to evolve to include new components such as intercultural communication and global education. As a result of the values reflected by this internal review process, numerous faculty members have been recognized for service at the regional and national level.

Former provost Helen Grove demonstrated her commitment to service learning and community engagement by creating the service learning coordinator position in 2004. While Sinclair does not require service learning of all students, many programs (such as the Honors Program, American Sign Language, and Dietetics) require students to complete between ten and twenty hours of service learning. Service-learning activities on campus have grown steadily over the last ten years, with approximately one hundred faculty members incorporating service learning into their instruction each year and nearly one thousand students participating annually. Much of Sinclair’s service-learning outreach focuses on addressing areas of social and economic need in the community, with some projects helping to develop students’ political awareness and civic engagement. For example, students enrolled in an English class edited the website and voter guide of the local League of Women Voters, providing advice about grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Sinclair’s culture of collaboration and engagement is also strengthened by many faculty-driven grassroots initiatives fostered by departments, divisions, and the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). These initiatives include various faculty-mentored student political clubs (Campus Democrats, Campus Republicans, Young Americans for Liberty); a Model United Nations program conducted in partnership with twelve area colleges; activities surrounding the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday; and a Diversity and Inclusion track for instructors interested in this area of professional development. One unique faculty-driven initiative is the Sinclair Change Agents, consisting of faculty members who agree to attend at least two diversity training events a year and work collectively within their roles at Sinclair to enable positive change with respect to issues of diversity. This informal group, which formed after a CTL-sponsored campus visit from Frances Kendall, a national expert on diversity education, gathers six times each academic year to discuss challenges, opportunities, and progress for people of color on campus. While advances have been sporadic, the group has strong support across campus and helps keep issues of equity at the forefront of the minds of administrators, faculty, and staff.

New Challenges, Tested Approaches

Sinclair’s faculty continue to address contemporary challenges related to funding and other issues with the same approach we have used to survive critical moments throughout our history: by seeking allies, inspiring students, and constantly examining how we can, as David Sinclair charged us, “find the need and endeavor to meet it.” We continue to strive to help students become responsible and engaged citizens and professionals who are educated in the issues that will affect their families, neighborhoods, and communities for generations to come.

Reference

SOCHE (Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education). 2015. “Vision Statement.” https://www.soche.org/about.


David Bodary is service learning coordinator at Sinclair Community College; Derek Petrey is associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Sinclair Community College; and Katherine Rowell is director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Sinclair Community College.

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