Civic Identity and Agency after College: Alumni Voices from Three Academic Civic Engagement Programs

A few years ago, we worked with a team of colleagues to undertake a study of the civic identity and agency of alumni from three longstanding, developmental, curricular civic engagement programs: the one-year Public Service Scholars Program at Stanford Univer-sity, the two-year Citizen Scholars Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the four-year Public and Community Service Studies major at Providence College. (See Mitchell et al. 2011 for more information on these programs.)

Although the programs differ in length, all three are cohort based and have a shared mission to build civic agency and encourage stu-dents to view themselves as scholars engaged in creating a better world. All of the programs require students to work in the community and complete a capstone experience (either research or projects addressing a public issue). The programs also provide opportunities for students to work in the same community setting over multiple semesters. We offered some preliminary results from this research project in an earlier article (Mitchell et al. 2013).

During the summer of 2012, we conducted in-depth interviews with a purposefully selected, representative sample (by race, gender, and cohort) of eleven graduates of each program, all of whom had graduated at least five years previously. We then distributed an online survey to almost four hundred people, who had graduated as many as fifteen years earlier, and received responses from 192 alumni. Eager to understand how alumni interpreted what we learned from those interventions, we conducted a series of focus groups at each campus with fifty-six program alumni during reunion events at all three campuses in 2014 and 2015. We present some of the results from our interviews, survey, and focus groups in this article.

Conflicting Views of Self as Civic Actor

The survey results suggested a highly engaged alumni group. More than 97 percent of respondents reported they were registered to vote, and political efficacy among the graduates responding to the survey was also quite high. The mean response to the item “I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of the political issues facing our country” was 4.72 on a six-point Likert-type scale (with a standard deviation (SD) of 0.931), and alumni believed they had “a role to play in the political process” (mean = 4.63; SD = 1.188). Alumni also demonstrated that they had acted on this belief in the last twelve months, with 99 percent reporting that they had discussed political issues with friends, 53 percent noting that they had worked with a group to solve community problems, and 40 percent stating that they had reached out to a public official to express their opinions about policy issues. More than 82 percent of respondents reported volunteering or participating in community service in the last year, compared with 25 percent of the national population and 39 percent of the nation’s college graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016).

Yet in interviews and focus groups, when we asked graduates about their current civic participation, their personal reflections did not show the same confidence that our survey results suggested. A Providence College alumnus (class of 2006) seemed to be struggling to understand how he should be engaged as he asked, “Is engagement something that’s [a] volunteer [opportunity] and then you do it in your extra time . . . or is it something that’s critical and that challenges you and should be discomforting and should be a responsibility?” A Stanford University alumna (class of 2002) asked, “[Am I] doing enough?” and “Where do I feel like I can make a difference?” as she sought to find the best way to live her civic commitments. She believed that she might never stop questioning whether she was contrib-uting in all the ways that she could, and she said this was “hard . . . because you don’t want to have complacency but you don’t want to also just be constantly downing yourself.”

Similarly, many of our respondents faulted themselves for not doing enough politically. An alumna of Stanford University (class of 1995) expressed this conflict:

Bare minimum, I vote. Bare minimum, I volunteer with my children’s school. Bare minimum, I watch out for my neighbor next door. . . . To me that’s just what you do as a good citizen. I think if I were more of an active civic and community participant I would do more. . . . Do I care about it? Do I want the right things to happen? Yes. Do I teach my children? Yes. Do I actually do more to advocate for social justice on a local arena level to national level? Not so much.

This alumna’s dilemma reflected what we heard from many of those we interviewed. Because of work and/or family obligations, they felt unable to be involved in community and politics at the level they had been as undergraduate students. Time and place constraints pre-vented them from seeing themselves as the kind of civic actors they aspired to be.

An Integrated Civic Self

As the conversations continued, many of the graduates articulated ways they did see themselves acting on their civic and political com-mitments. Their political identities took on a more local focus as alumni worked to build communities where they live. A University of Massachusetts alumna (class of 2009) shared her work to enact her vision of social change:

One of the primary ways I engage civically [is] fighting tooth and nail to make sure that I continue to have really connected relation-ships with people in my life. I see it as . . . one of the hugest ways that . . . this society is . . . hurtful to me and the people around me. . . . Day by day . . . building a community that’s really reflective of what I see around me. [Connecting] with folks that . . . I’m not supposed to be connected to as a middle-class white girl . . . so that they [can] accomplish their goals [is] the number one way that I see myself en-gaging in social change.

Graduates suggested that they saw civic action as a way of life, something many attributed to the lessons learned in their undergraduate civic engagement programs. Alumni viewed their civic and political identities as integrated in their professional, social, and family cir-cles. An alumna of Providence College (class of 2000) reflected this perspective:

I’m heavily involved in this sort of shared community gardening experience now, [which] feels like a civic action. Helping to open this birth center feels like a civic action. Teaching therapists to use nonviolence in their practice feels like a civic action. Boycotting Walmart feels like a civic action. . . . I think that’s why it’s hard to answer the question like, “Well, I go to my 9:00 to 5:00 job and then I go perform my civic actions.” It’s like they have to be the same thing for me. . . . I think that was the part that drew me to [the Provi-dence College] program because I . . . needed for those two things to be intertwined.

Alumni worked to avoid the bifurcation of their civic and professional selves and sought to engage socially and professionally in ways that reflected the civic aims they identified for themselves and their communities. This was best demonstrated as alumni spoke about their careers.

Weaving Civic Practice into the Workplace

Graduates from these programs seemed to weave civic theory and practice into their workplaces. An alumna of Providence College (class of 2000) explained,

We’re not here at a school anymore where you’re able to have a clear cause of an injustice that you can really get at. It’s so much bigger out in the world that we enact civic engagement through our jobs in looking at
the systems and how they work and at the workplace and how to make things more just.

The civic lessons of the Providence College program inspired another graduate (class of 1998) to prioritize relationships and community building in the workplace:

One of the best strengths I feel that I learned from this program and that continues to serve me in my work . . . is the importance of be-ing part of a community. And so, the decisions that I make aren’t just mine to make. They’re in consultation with the people that I work with. . . . There’s lots of disagreement and there’s lots of conversation. But it’s important to me, having come from this program, to think in relationship with people, to act in relationship to people.

We witnessed graduates grapple with what these undergraduate programs taught them about being a civic actor and how to apply that in their daily lives. Fifty-seven percent of respondents strongly agreed that their undergraduate civic engagement program influenced their choice of career, and only 8 percent reported that the program had no influence on their choice of career. One alumna of the University of Massachusetts (class of 2002) remarked,

At one point I had the opportunity to work in marketing for a property management company and . . . I could stay there or I could start a job where I was going to be teaching adults workplace math. And the marketing job was making triple what the workplace math job was going to be. . . . I was in grad school, you know it would really help but at the end it was living with myself and knowing that my actions mattered. . . . That was where it clicked that it’s going to be more than just putting food on a plate.

Developing Agency after College

We heard alumni discuss how they and their understanding of themselves had changed since they had completed their programs. As one graduate of Providence College (class of 2009) put it,

I think about who I was when I came as a freshman and how I talked about service. I talked about working at Special Olympics. That’s what I did on Saturdays. . . . And I think what the difference was, through this program, I really understood my values and what moti-vated me to do these things. And then it became, “This isn’t what I do. It’s who I am and how I see the world and how I live those val-ues.” So, once I graduated, I couldn’t not work on a campaign. I couldn’t not be involved.

As she described how her understandings of her civic responsibility had expanded, a University of Massachusetts alumna (class of 2008) also explained how she is “really trying to bring that energy and that light into all these things that I do.” She talked about her engagement with those from whom she has “a completely different religious, political, geographic” perspective, emphasizing that the lessons of the civic engagement program—that “the personal is political”—encouraged her efforts “to live that out in all different things that I do.”

Concluding Thoughts

What emerged from the interviews and focus group sessions is a picture of civic identity and action that is rich but more focused and local than traditional conceptions or what these alumni likely envisioned when they were undergraduate students. We find these graduates at-tempting to translate the ideas of citizenship and social justice they learned in college to key elements of their everyday lives. More specif-ically, we see graduates incorporating civic identities and values into their workplaces, both in terms of their actions and the processes by which they arrive at workplace decisions. And more than anything else, we see graduates who are questioning and complicating notions of what it means to be engaged, to be of “service” to others and the public.

What is most interesting in the context of a national conversation on reimagining alumnihood is the way these alumni grapple with questions of civic identity and action after college. Interviews and focus groups show alumni who attribute a set of civic value commit-ments to their undergraduate programs and who aspire to live up to these commitments. The time and place constraints of life after col-lege make it difficult for them to be engaged in the same ways they were in college. They seem always to be questioning the balance be-tween work, family and personal life, and civic action. But they also seem to find civic purpose through connecting their identities at work, within their families, and as consumers to their civic identities, particularly within their local contexts.

References

Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2016. Volunteering in the United States, 2015. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm.

Mitchell, Tania D., Richard M. Battistoni, Arthur S. Keene, and John Reiff. 2013. “Programs that Build Civic Identity: A Study of Alumni.” Diversity & Democracy 16 (3): 22–23. https://www.aacu.org/diversitydemocracy/2013/summer/mitchell-battistoni-keene-reiff.

Mitchell, Tania, Virginia Visconti, Arthur Keene, and Richard Battistoni. 2011. “Educating for Democratic Lead-ership at Stanford, UMass, and Providence College.” In From Command to Community: A New Approach to Leadership Education in Colleges and Universities, edited by Nicholas V. Longo and Cynthia M. Gibson, 115–48. Lebanon, NH: University of New England Press.


Richard M. Battistoni is Professor of Political Science and Public and Community Service Studies at Providence College and Tania D. Mitchell is Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Minnesota.

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