Diversity and Democracy

Cultivating a Safe Environment for Civic Education

In a recent professional development workshop, a faculty member from the University of South Carolina Upstate (USC Upstate) pointed out that comfortable classroom environments are likely to be void of controversial topics—and of conflict, problem-solving, and risk. As these are essential characteristics of a high-quality civic education, students need exposure to uncomfortable learning environments to prepare for active citizenship. And yet, it is critical that students engage in learning without fear of being threatened, judged, or dominated when expressing their ideas. Thus learning environments that prepare students for democratic engagement must strike a careful balance, simultaneously being uncomfortable and safe.

At USC Upstate, we challenge students to take positions on divisive topics knowing that their views will be challenged. We ask them to become leaders and to solve serious real-world problems with skills that they recently acquired and have not yet perfected. These challenges are not always comfortable, but are essential for civic learning. Accordingly, USC Upstate strives to foster a campus environment where students feel safe while embarking upon the uncomfortable challenges that prepare them for effective and meaningful participation in civil society.

Regional Challenges and Opportunities

USC Upstate’s mission is to offer baccalaureate education to citizens in the ten-county northwest region of the state. Educational attainment in this region has lagged behind state and national averages, in part because the once dominant textile industry did not require college degrees for most job opportunities. Historically, community life centered on textile companies that provided housing opportunities, shopping, and recreational activities. But most mills ended operations over recent decades, and communities now are emerging from a comfort zone where the textile companies met most basic needs and made many community decisions. USC Upstate offers opportunities for residents to develop the skills needed in a region where decision-making power and community outcomes are now—more than ever—the responsibility of private citizens.

Just under one third of USC Upstate’s 5,500 students are in the first generation of their families to attend college. Roughly the same fraction identify as students of color. More than seven of ten are from the region, and about 95 percent are from the state. The vast majority of students in this diverse community of learners will continue to live in the region following graduation, giving them a collective interest in the region’s economic opportunities and quality of life. USC Upstate’s students also share a purpose and a common fate with the faculty and staff, whose communities will be shaped by the very people they are educating.

A Comprehensive Approach to Civic Education

USC Upstate offers a variety of opportunities for students to develop civic skills beginning in their first semester. Civic skill development and democratic education are priorities in the first-year writing program, a general education requirement. This two-course sequence directly contributes to students’ abilities to be effective citizens. In the first course, students learn about appropriate discourse and the power of rhetoric in communicating ideas. They learn to think critically, to craft organized writing with a clear purpose, and to analyze others’ communication. A required textbook, which changes each year, focuses on a contemporary topic of interest. For example, the faculty recently selected a common book that included a collection of gay and lesbian memoirs to coincide with major Supreme Court decisions—a selection that stirred controversy in the South Carolina legislature and galvanized campus and community conversations about academic freedom, censorship, and competing values. An additional textbook, revised annually by USC Upstate English faculty, includes essays about social, political, and historical issues.

The second course in the writing sequence challenges students to critique others’ work and to openly discuss competing interpretations of texts. Students thus gain exposure to viewpoints different from their own. Some faculty have used the course to engage students in specific issues confronting the Upstate region, structuring assignments to inspire students to take an interest in problems that directly affect their lives. The capstone writing assignment requires students to explain the causes of a local problem, propose a solution, and identify stakeholders who can act on students’ recommendations. Past student-selected capstone topics include reducing teen pregnancy in a county within the region and responding to pollution on the Carolina coast. While enhancing students’ writing skills, the program encourages students to see themselves as active democratic participants and provides them with the tools to influence change.

This year, USC Upstate will implement a program to expand service-learning opportunities across the entire academic curriculum. The newly empowered Office of Service-Learning and Community Engagement will offer faculty development opportunities while also building individualized connections to viable community partners. By expanding service-learning opportunities, USC Upstate will empower students to influence real-world community outcomes through their coursework, regardless of their chosen major, positioning them to serve their communities after graduation.

The Office of Student Life complements these programs with workshops that afford students opportunities to develop skills in collaborative decision making, civility, and conflict management with the understanding that each is a key ingredient to producing positive societal outcomes. Students also can participate in volunteer projects, such as Habitat for Humanity, in communities across the region, and in an alternative break program involving intensive field experiences throughout the country. Recently, students travelled to New Orleans to aid revitalization and community development efforts in neighborhoods still rebounding after Hurricane Katrina.

A Safe Environment for Risk-Taking

Civic learning can be uncomfortable. The programs mentioned above intentionally put students in challenging situations so that they can learn skills that are necessary for effective citizenship. At USC Upstate, many students enter this environment while also confronting other challenges that can hamper student success—for example, while working extensive hours in part-time jobs, or while navigating the undergraduate experience without family members or friends who successfully completed college. In these contexts, barriers that can seem relatively insignificant to some—such as receiving criticism on an assignment or not getting into preferred course sections—can tragically end the college careers of others. USC Upstate has made strategic efforts to foster a supportive and inclusive environment for students as they navigate the natural adversity that accompanies learning, development, and achievement.

The Are You Okay (R U OK) program recently emerged as a mechanism to improve student welfare and establish dialogue among students and professional staff. R U OK stickers appear prominently across campus, encouraging students to use campus support services and to inquire about the well-being of their peers. The program allows members of the campus community to anonymously report concerns about students who may be experiencing difficulties. The dean of students meets with each reported student and typically makes referrals to services including the USC Upstate Food Pantry, Housing, and Counseling Services. Established to cultivate a safe campus environment in light of the challenges many students face, the program has achieved broad success in promoting well-being and shared responsibility across the university.

Certain traditionally underrepresented students—including those who are first generation, have a documented disability, or are from low-income households—also have access to a robust support system. The Opportunity Network, a federally funded TRIO student support services program, provides selected students with academic and personal counseling, access to social and cultural programming, financial literacy training, and undergraduate research and internship opportunities. The program serves over 170 students, and impressively boasts annual persistence rates that exceed 90 percent.

New Possibilities, High Stakes

Civic education removes students from their comfort zones, empowers them to take risks, and can serve as a springboard to new possibilities. Like USC Upstate’s students, the Upstate region has left its comfort zone, depending as never before on skilled citizens to achieve positive community outcomes. Accordingly, the stakes of getting civic education right at USC Upstate are incredibly high—both for students, and for the future of the Upstate region.

The authors thank their colleagues, particularly Peter Caster, Khrystal Smith, and Cassandra Jones, for providing insight and information for this article.

Abraham Goldberg is director of service-learning and community engagement and associate professor of political science at the University of South Carolina Upstate; and Stacey D. Mills is interim executive director and director of student services at the University of South Carolina Upstate, Greenville Campus.



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