Diversity and Democracy

Signature Work in Action: Senior Capstones Prepare Students for Unscripted Challenges

More than twenty years ago, administrators and faculty at Portland State University (PSU) boldly enacted a comprehensive reform of our general education program in order to create more meaningful and relevant educational pathways for our students. The result was a four-year general education program, University Studies, which mirrors nearly identically the “guided pathway with signature work” model proposed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U 2015).

Each University Studies course across four levels is required to address four goals: communication, critical thinking, ethics and social responsibility, and appreciation of the diversity of the human experience. During the first year, each student engages in Freshman Inquiry: an interdisciplinary, theme-based exploration of an important topic organized through courses such as Globalization, Race and Social Justice, and Sustainability. Following Freshman Inquiry, students complete three sophomore-level theme-based courses and three junior-level cluster courses, through which they rigorously examine substantial topics in courses such as Leading Social Change, Global Perspectives, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Design Thinking/Innovation/Entrepreneurship. In the first and second years, peer and graduate mentors are key to the curriculum, facilitating small-group sessions and enhancing peer-to-peer learning. At the senior level, University Studies culminates in a seminar-style, interdisciplinary, community-based-learning Capstone course, which serves as students’ “signature experience.”

PSU engages over 4,400 students in 220 Capstone courses annually, making ours the largest documented capstone program in the nation. In research conducted at PSU, students overwhelmingly reported that their Capstone was one of the most significant learning experiences in their undergraduate education (Fullerton, Reitenauer, and Kerrigan 2015).

Transformative Community-Based Learning

Due to their immersive nature, PSU’s Capstone courses deeply engage students in community-based experiences that require students to cross borders into new territories for learning and transformation. A powerful example of this profound learning is experienced in the Capstone course Metamorphosis: Creating Positive Futures, modeled on the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program (http://www.insideoutcenter.org/programs.html).

In this course, fifteen PSU (“outside”) students and fifteen incarcerated (“inside”) students meet together once a week in a collaborative learning environment inside MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility (MYCF) in Woodburn, Oregon, about a forty-minute drive south of PSU. In Oregon, youth correctional facilities can house youth until age twenty-five, so most students, both “inside” and “outside,” are relatively same-age peers. Together, students study various historical and contemporary social change movements and examine their own roles as agents of change. As a group, students select a social justice issue with which to engage, then develop and implement a project to address that issue in a concrete way.

During one term, for example, “inside” students were concerned about the trees on the MYCF campus. The campus, which is over one hundred years old, was at one time filled with trees that had begun rotting and were being removed by the maintenance department. Together, students researched the benefits to both personal rehabilitation and the environment of having many healthy trees on the campus. They used that research to petition the facility’s administration to preserve the remaining trees, and succeeded in garnering donations from a local nursery of additional fruit-bearing trees for the campus. Simultaneously, building upon the metaphor of trees as personal growth, the students documented their experience in a self-published book, Metamorphosis: Creating Positive Futures (Arthur 2015). (See below for one poem from the book.)


By Jen, Portland State University Capstone student

I see freedom found in restraint.
I see new life coming from inside confinement.
I see identity being discovered. I see boys becoming men.
I see brilliant minds exploring new territory.
I see passions being released. I see hope being restored.
I see dreams being grasped. I see strengths being utilized. I see hands creating art.
I see mouths opening to be heard. I see pain developing perseverance.
I see trials producing character. I see frustration crafting change.
I see bad decisions generating wisdom.
I see diversity bringing unity.
I see regret leading to redemption.
I see transformation.

Originally published in Metamorphosis: Creating Positive Futures, edited by Deborah Arthur (2015). Reprinted here with permission.

Simply by meeting together, students experience an additional layer of learning beyond the content- and project-based learning of the course. This particular place-based educational experience impels “outside” students to reflect upon the correctional facility and their relationship to it; to see “inmates” as colleagues; and to examine, contemplate, and understand policy through the lens of that experience. Likewise, “inside” students benefit from the partnership in transformative ways as the collaborative learning environment allows them to self-identify as successful students and provides them “motivational capital,” thereby increasing their likelihood of successful community reintegration upon release (Clinkinbeard and Zohra 2012, 237).

Indeed, place-based Capstone courses are the perfect soil for examining and unlearning cultural judgments and developing relationships with “the other” (Eyler, Giles, and Braxton 1997). These relationships, built within a context of shared intellectual inquiry, can serve to dismantle assumptions, familiarize “the other,” and help students develop lifelong skills for addressing unscripted challenges and understanding and relating to complex, diverse communities.

Ongoing Challenges, New Horizons

The two most daunting challenges to implementing 220 Capstone courses annually are (1) advocating for seminar-style courses in the era of performance-based budgeting and (2) managing tensions between the program’s focus on engaging interdisciplinary teams of students in problem-solving and the deep interest of several departmental faculty in teaching only single-discipline capstones. Recently, several academic departments have requested that single-discipline capstones replace the interdisciplinary capstone requirement. The data thus far at PSU demonstrate that small, interdisciplinary, community-based learning seminars that allow students to truly learn from one another and contribute together as agents of change across disciplinary boundaries lead to tremendous learning outcomes unmatched by those of large, single-discipline courses. Moreover, the unscripted problems of global warming, racial oppression, multigenerational poverty, economic development, and diminishing worldwide water supplies will never be solved by a single academic department, but rather through creative problem-solving across academic boundaries. Nonetheless, even after twenty years, some departmental faculty find it challenging to acknowledge the value of interdisciplinary problem-solving. At PSU, we struggle deeply with this issue and are working to enact a curriculum that has opportunities for both disciplinary and interdisciplinary community-based learning experiences.

As we grapple with these challenges, we also dream of a future where we have structures in place to build upon students’ signature work after graduation by engaging alumni in the community. More than half of Portland State alumni remain in the greater metropolitan area after graduation, and we have both the responsibility and the opportunity to galvanize their efforts to create more just and sustainable communities in Oregon and beyond. We have recently formally built this dream into PSU’s strategic plan, and we look forward to working with other progressive universities who are dedicating efforts and funds to continue the engagement of college graduates as civic agents in their communities.

More information about University Studies is available at www.pdx.edu/unst.


AAC&U. 2015. The LEAP Challenge: Education for a World of Unscripted Problems. https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/LEAPChallengeBrochure.pdf.

Arthur, Deborah, ed. 2015. Metamorphosis: Creating Positive Futures. Self-published volume available at http://www.blurb.com/b/6599006- metamorphosis-creating-positive-futures.

Clinkinbeard, Samantha S., and Tusty Zohra. 2012. “Expectations, Fears and Strategies: Juvenile Offender Thoughts on a Future Outside of Incarceration.” Youth & Society 44 (2): 236–57.

Eyler, Janet, Dwight E. Giles, Jr., and John Braxton. 1997. “The Impact of Service-Learning on College Students.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 4: 5–15.

Fullerton, Ann, Vicki L. Reitenauer, and Seanna M. Kerrigan. 2015. “A Grateful Recollecting: A Qualitative Study of the Long-term Impact of Service Learning on Graduates.” Journal of Higher Education and Outreach and Engagement 19 (2): 65–92.

Deborah Smith Arthur is assistant professor in the University Studies Program at Portland State University; Seanna Kerrigan is Capstone Program director at Portland State University,

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