Diversity and Democracy

A Whole-Institution Approach to Civic Engagement

Paul Quinn College (PQC) is a 145-year-old institution that over the last ten years has completely remade itself, establishing a new standard for higher education civic engagement. The college has accomplished this transformation in large part by identifying and embracing a core set of beliefs and values that shape everything from our worldview to our pedagogical practices, including our approach to civic engagement.

PQC’s work is structured around the beliefs that (1) poverty is evil; (2) urban colleges should turn themselves outward and address the needs of the communities they serve; and (3) students and underresourced communities have the capacity to be more than mere subjects of other people’s research, experiments, and exercises in poverty tourism. At Paul Quinn, we maintain that given the right environment, urban colleges and their students can transform not just the lives of those enrolled, but also the community at large. Furthermore, we believe that when such a climate exists, a significant blow can be dealt to long-term poverty.

Key to actualizing these philosophies are PQC’s three sets of institutional values. The first is our Institutional Ethos: “WE over Me,” which translates to “the needs of a community supersede the wants of an individual.” The second set of values is captured in our Four Ls of Quinnite Leadership: Leave places better than you found them, Live a life that matters, Lead from wherever you are, and Love something greater than yourself. Lastly, borrowing from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, we strive to teach our students to always choose the harder right over the easier wrong, without regard for self-interest. These values define the college and form the foundation of its civic engagement programming.

Civic Engagement in an Era of Growing Poverty

The data show that America has a poverty problem. More than 43 million Americans were living in poverty as of 2015 (Proctor, Semega, and Kollar 2016). In 2013, the majority of K–12 public school students were receiving free and reduced lunches for the first time in at least fifty years (Layton 2015). Furthermore, far too many students are accruing long-term debt in an attempt to buy their way out of poverty through a college education. Forty million Americans have student loan debt, with graduates owing an average of $29,000 (Holland 2015).

Such data illustrate the need for America’s institutions of higher education to do more than simply educate students. Our colleges and universities need to address the great problems of our day. Thankfully, American higher education is not unfamiliar with this role. Higher education in the United States has always played a significant part in addressing the nation’s challenges; one could even argue that American higher education was founded on such a premise. However, the exact role that a college or university should play has not always been clear (Saltmarsh, Hartley, and Clayton 2009).

Higher education has struggled for years to define its role in addressing national challenges. Among the earliest evidence of tensions between competing interests in this struggle is the debate between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Their dispute was not about the role of a specific institution or economic development in a traditional sense, but rather the proper role of higher education as the anchor institution of the black community.

Washington believed that the best service higher education could provide blacks immediately after slavery and Reconstruction was to teach them to work and save in order to create wealth (Washington 1901). Du Bois, on the other hand, believed that the most prudent first step was to provide an education in the liberal arts to a group of elite individuals, a “Talented Tenth” who would be charged with leading the masses out of the darkness (Du Bois 1903).

Neither man was incorrect. Their opinions were products of their individual positions and experiences. Their debate provides a natural starting point for any conversation on civic engagement in higher education, especially one concerning Paul Quinn College, one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges.

University–Community Partnerships

The Washington–Du Bois model of university–community partnerships, where community is understood in relation to a group of people connected by their deep reliance on an institution, serves as one source of inspiration for the Paul Quinn model of civic engagement. At Paul Quinn, civic engagement is not a class. Rather, it is the entire focus of the institution. To paraphrase the college’s mission statement, PQC exists to produce servant leaders and agents of change in the global marketplace. While servant leadership is a well-worn phrase, PQC offers two examples that prove its version of the concept is anything but common.

The WE Over Me Farm. Paul Quinn College sits in the Highland Hills neighborhood of Dallas, Texas, a community that has struggled with food insecurity for more than thirty years. In an effort to address this issue, the college has waged a fight against food deserts that has become central to our radical reinterpretation of civic engagement. PQC began this work by converting its football field into the two-acre WE Over Me organic farm (made possible through partnerships with philanthropist Trammell S. Crow, Pepsi Co., and Yale University). Over the last seven years, the farm has produced more than fifty thousand pounds of food and brought national attention to the college and the issue of food insecurity. With the exception of the Farm Director and a part-time assistant, students run the entire enterprise. The goal was never to transform students into farmers; instead, it was to engage them in entrepreneurial thought and action so they could become empowered community leaders who see what is possible instead of what is improbable.

Community Engagement and Education Program House. Several years ago, PQC entered into a partnership with Habitat for Humanity that allows Paul Quinn students to live in an off-campus Habitat home in exchange for serving as community organizers in an underresourced community. This arrangement builds on the college’s philosophy of using all its institutional assets in service of the surrounding community.

The Urban Work College Model

Working while pursuing an undergraduate education has become a fundamental way of life in America (Perna 2010, xiii). More than 75 percent of dependent undergraduate students and 80 percent of independent undergraduate students are working more than twenty-four hours per week while enrolled in school (Perna, Cooper, and Li 2007). At PQC, 80 to 85 percent of attendees are Pell Grant-eligible, so almost all students are working while taking classes. In response to the realities of both our students and the current higher education landscape, PQC created a new model of higher education, the Urban Work College.

The model is built on the foundation of the Work College, an approach that arose because schools were looking for ways to help poor students finance their educations (Young and Hobson 2011). Work Colleges integrate on-campus work assignments into all residential students’ academic requirements, so students typically perform between eight and fifteen hours of labor per week (Work College Consortium n.d.).

Paul Quinn’s corporate work program differentiates it from the traditional work college model. After gaining experience working on campus, students are assigned to off-campus work placements. This format allows students to see the direct connections between the classroom and the workplace, earn money to support themselves, gain a competitive advantage when seeking postcollegiate employment, and reduce their reliance on student loans.

But there is another benefit to this format that is closely related to PQC’s values. By placing students in supervised off-campus work environments, the college is creating an advanced form of civic engagement. This system encourages students to develop professional relationships and skills that they can then bring to bear in addressing community issues.


Paul Quinn College represents the evolution of civic engagement in higher education. PQC is using the entire institution as a vehicle for both student and community empowerment. This model presents an intriguing option for small colleges seeking to move beyond simple community improvement projects and wanting to play a more substantive role in their communities.


Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Co.

Holland, Kelley. 2015. “The High Economic and Social Costs of Student Loan Debt.” CNBC, June 15. http://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/15/the-high-economic-and-social-costs-of-student-loan-debt.html.

Layton, Lyndsey. 2015. “Majority of U.S. Public School Students Are in Poverty.” Washington Post, January 16. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/majority-of-us-public-school-students-are-in-poverty/2015/01/15/df7171d0-9ce9-11e4-a7ee-526210d665b4_story.html.

Perna, Laura W. 2010. Understanding the Working College Student: New Research and Its Implications for Policy and Practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Perna, Laura W., Michelle Asha Cooper, and Chunyan Li. 2007. “Improving Educational Opportunities for Students Who Work.” Readings on Equal Education 22: 109–60.

Proctor, Bernadette D., Jessica L. Semega, and Melissa A. Koller. 2016. “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2015” (Report P60-256). Washington, DC: United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p60-256.pdf.

Saltmarsh, John, Matt Hartley, and Patti Clayton. 2009. Democratic Engagement White Paper. Boston, MA: New England Resource Center for Higher Education. http://www.ncat.edu/research/community-engagement/nerche-paper.pdf.

Washington, Booker T. 1901. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography. New York: Doubleday.

Work Colleges Consortium. n.d. “About Work Colleges.” http://www.workcolleges.org/about-work-colleges

Young, Robin, and Jeremy Hobson. 2011. “Work Colleges Help Students Graduate without Big Debt.” Here & Now, December 22. http://hereandnow.legacy.wbur.org/2011/12/22/work-colleges-students.

Michael J. Sorrell is President of Paul Quinn College.

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