Diversity and Democracy

Ringing True: Applied Civic Learning at Emory & Henry College

Woven into the fabric of Emory & Henry College is the tension between two approaches to learning: a traditional interpretation of the liberal arts that privileges learning for the sake of learning, and a focus on applied learning in which students engage in substantive work. The commitment to using this enduring tension for creative and productive purposes is part of the fiber of this institution. Founded in 1836 to educate citizens for participation in the American republic, the college was named for John Emory, a Methodist bishop, and Patrick Henry, a Virginia patriot during the American Revolution. While Emory & Henry evolved as an institution offering a classical liberal arts education, often at a distance from the world, it also became a place where teaching and learning are connected through service and civic leadership. The educational culture that has grown from this legacy rings true with the college’s original mission, while also charting new directions.

Transgressing Traditional Boundaries

In 1996, Emory & Henry began to act more intentionally to engage the people and places around the college. With a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, the college founded both the Appalachian Center for Community Service and the degree program in Public Policy and Community Service and began integrating service learning into curricular and cocurricular programming. Positioning participants from both the college and from local communities as coeducators and colearners, these initiatives joined the learning and teaching that occurs in the classroom with learning and teaching that occurs through students’ civic work and lived experiences. The innovations also built on the strengths of longstanding efforts like the school’s Bonner Scholars Program, established in 1991, which was the first program at the college to integrate reflection into its educational work and to structure service for pedagogical goals.

At the time, many faculty members looked with misgiving on changes they viewed as transgressing traditional boundaries of what higher education is and where it is undertaken. Some regarded the reflection embedded in the new initiatives as “feel-good” therapy, lacking in intellectual rigor. Others were adamantly opposed to challenging the traditional teacher-student power structure. Still others regarded those who integrated service into classroom learning as having political agendas. To secure buy-in despite these reservations, supporters of the new efforts organized one-on-one meetings with concerned faculty to work through and address their reservations. By finding and celebrating common ground, building alliances, and engaging in collaborative work, faculty came to embrace the educational rigor embedded in the changes and to regard them as part of the college’s legacy and mission. 

A Culture of Civic Innovation

Following internal audits and external reviews, drawing inspiration from the white paper Democratic Engagement (Saltmarsh, Hartley, and Clayton 2009), and with support of the Rensselaerville Institute, in 2014 Emory & Henry reconceived of the Appalachian Center for Community Service as the Appalachian Center for Civic Life. Simultaneously, the Interdisciplinary Program in Civic Innovation replaced the Department of Public Policy and Community Service. 

The Civic Innovation program’s work is being shaped by an effort to “change the count”: to define the scope of civic engagement using metrics other than the numbers of hours served or people involved. Connecting the educational tensions described above with the college’s mission, our civic engagement efforts represent our attempts to contribute substantively to addressing community-identified needs. Moreover, the Civic Innovation program also challenges the American “can-do” ideology and its focus on quick fixes by teaching students about the complexity of intractable problems facing American society—racism, income inequality, economic disparity, environmental destruction—even as they engage in achieving tangible outcomes for human gain.

A culture in which students take on increasingly ambitious projects to build a strong civic life with community members now flourishes at Emory & Henry. Twenty years after the college’s initial investment in community service, 30 percent of all courses at Emory & Henry have a civic engagement component. Connecting learning and teaching in places and with people beyond the college is now standard practice.

A Commitment to Applied Liberal Arts

Even as our institutional culture of civic engagement is flowering, Emory & Henry is facing an increasingly difficult and complex economic environment. That it was founded to serve a region that is now suffering from profound economic shifts—and that it has traditionally had an exemplary record of providing educational opportunities for first-generation college students with high financial need—further sharpens the current perils. In order to articulate the essence of who and what we are, and to refocus resources and energy accordingly, Emory & Henry undertook a strategic overlay process in 2014.

For those involved in this strategic visioning, the ampersand became definitional. More than a character in the institution’s name, the ampersand symbolized the connections that Emory & Henry students make in an education focused on integrative learning inside and outside the classroom. Drawing from the work of this committee, the college named the Emory & Henry student experience “Project Ampersand.”

In Project Ampersand, the liberal arts become “Ampersand Learning.” Borrowing from the Integrative Learning VALUE Rubric published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U, n.d.), Ampersand Learning encourages a mindset “that a student builds across the curriculum and cocurriculum, from making simple connections among ideas and experiences to synthesizing and transferring learning to new, complex situations within and beyond the campus.” Like traditional liberal arts approaches, Ampersand Learning encourages curiosity and passion about an issue or question, fosters interdisciplinary thinking, and depends on critical reflection. But Ampersand Learning also insists on applied learning: putting feet and hands to projects grounded in passion and curiosity. Project Ampersand provides opportunities for students to make dynamic and transformative connections among their personal experiences, their curiosities, their learning inside and outside the classroom, and their individual and collaborative efforts to explore and apply new knowledge to difficult questions and issues.

The Structure of Ampersand Learning

Students are introduced to Ampersand Learning in their first-year seminars, and they pursue project-based learning—now integral across the curriculum—throughout their time in college. Ampersand projects vary from student to student: some projects involve traditional research and reporting, while others involve collaboration with community members to address community needs. Some projects are individual, others collaborative. Many projects are undertaken and completed in a single course, while others extend over several semesters, involve students from a variety of disciplines in a range of responsibilities, and have both curricular and cocurricular elements.

All students build digital Ampersand Portfolios in which they store and present their projects, related reports and presentations, written reflections, and other materials illustrating the connections they make. Both an archival record and an assessment tool, the Ampersand Portfolio offers opportunities not only to document and celebrate Ampersand Learning, but also to assess efforts to address the tension between traditional understandings of the liberal arts and the institutional mandate that students apply their learning effectively.

Students can apply for Ampersand Grants to support unique projects in which they explore major issues, undertake significant artistic expressions, or engage in important civic work. At the end of the spring semester, students present their projects at Ampersand Day, a college-wide event.

A Comprehensive Expression

Project Ampersand and Ampersand Learning, the Appalachian Center for Civic Life and the Interdisciplinary Program in Civic Innovation, and the creative tensions out of which these efforts have grown are all expressions of Emory & Henry’s core identity and values. These initiatives ring true with each other, with the college’s legacy and mission, and with the direction higher education must take in order to address the questions now facing the American republic.


AAC&U. n.d. “Integrative and Applied Learning VALUE Rubric.” https://www.aacu.org/value/rubrics/integrative-learning

Saltmarsh, John, Matthew Hartley, and Patti Clayton. 2009. Democratic Engagement White Paper. Boston, MA: New England Resource Center for Higher Education.

Talmage A. Stanley is director of the Appalachian Center for Civic Life at Emory & Henry College.

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