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Building It Forward at Community Colleges: Staying Connected to Alumni through Civic Engagement
Community colleges are the institutions of higher education most firmly rooted in their communities. We draw most of our students from our local communities, and the vast majority of our graduates stay in the community to live and work. Yet in community colleges across the country, alumni are an underutilized resource. We seldom have alumni associations, alumni rarely come back to our campuses to mentor and advise students, and without alumni offices to track and compile data, we often do not even know who our alumni are.
In addition, we don’t conduct alumni relations as conventionally understood. Alumni relations efforts in other types of colleges typically revolve around sports and capital campaigns—but community colleges don’t have high-profile sports teams and, because our colleges have grown considerably in the last few decades, our alumni often have not yet reached their peak earning years.
For their part, community college graduates often do not even think of themselves as alumni. Many alumni who feel close to their campuses attribute this connection to cocurricular activities they engaged in and social relationships they developed during their educational experience. But community colleges often do not have dorms, fraternities, or sororities, and they offer little in the way of cocurricular life, preferring instead to spend resources on “job training.”
When Citizen Alum first began in 2011 as an initiative to involve alumni in educating future active citizens, Lone Star College–Kingwood (LSC–K) saw immediate potential and a natural fit, as our alumni have such strong ties to our local community north of Houston, Texas. Yet as we began to think about building an alumni program, we realized that working within the community college context would require us to create a different kind of model. We’ve found that civic engagement activities are the link that can keep alumni connected to LSC–K. Students who participate in civic engagement activities at LSC–K tend to form close relationships with faculty and with one another through powerful experiences in the community, and those relationships can stay strong through continued engagement after graduation.
LSC–K’s Citizen Alum initiative started as a “build it forward” model. Because many of our former students did not think of themselves as alumni, we could not easily motivate them to engage with the college. Instead, we focused on current LSC–K students involved in the public work of Lone Star College’s nonpartisan Center for Civic Engagement. We saw this as a way to build a future network of alumni dedicated to civic work. As I discuss in this article, our alumni work has centered around former students who were (1) Public Achievement program coaches who worked with K–12 students to solve community issues or (2) deliberative dialogue moderators who helped community members with differing viewpoints find common ground and consider productive ways to address problems.
The Public Achievement Program
Public Achievement is a youth engagement initiative developed at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. According to Augsburg University (n.d.), “The Public Achievement organizing model recognizes that people of every age have skills, talents, and ideas, and that by learning to work strategically with others, they can solve problems and build sustainable democratic societies.”
In the Public Achievement model at LSC–K, college students coach teams of K–12 students who research, develop, and carry out action plans to address issues that they care about in their communities. The issues range from school-focused ones such as improving lunches or addressing bullying to broader issues like building a community teen center, stopping animal abuse, or saving the rainforest.
Regardless of the issues they address, college coaches and K–12 students craft appeals to those in power, modify their proposals based on the feedback and interests of decision makers, and develop public skills and confidence. In other words, they learn to be political and develop a sense of agency.
The Public Achievement program at LSC–K has grown since its inception, when eight coaches worked in a single high school with twenty-six students in five issue groups. Over the seven years of the program, two hundred college students have coached hundreds of K–12 students working in dozens of issue groups in four schools.
In 2015, coaches from the first year of Public Achievement began graduating from four-year colleges. LSC–K’s Citizen Alum program moved in a new direction as we partnered with these alumni to expand Public Achievement in our community.
Partnering with an Alumna
Cleveland, Texas, is a small town northeast of Houston that exemplifies the new reality of disappearing blue-collar jobs in the United States. The median household income is $35,791—less than two-thirds of the median income of the state ($54,727)—and 26.7 percent of Cleveland residents live below the poverty level, compared with 15.6 percent of Texas residents. In addition, Cleveland is a diverse community with a population that is 46 percent non-Hispanic white, 28.9 percent Hispanic, and 23.5 percent black. Less than 10 percent of Cleveland residents over the age of 25 have graduated from college (US Census Bureau 2016a, 2016b). The district’s schools are beset with problems and perennially fail to meet annual academic progress goals.Danielle Thorp, an LSC–K alumna and second-grade teacher at Cleveland ISD’s Southside Primary School, said, “Living in a community with high poverty, you are often surrounded by a sense of helplessness. This is a community where things happen to people rather than people making things happen.”
As an LSC–K Public Achievement coach during the program’s inaugural year, Thorp worked with students at Splendora High School’s Early College Program who, she recalled, “often picked big issues to attempt to solve such as hunger or drop-out rates. Teenagers, often labeled as self-absorbed, wanted to impact change to improve the lives of others. They saw big problems and they wanted to tackle them head-on.”
The impact on Thorp was profound. “As a coach, I was inspired by working with teens as they turned the impossible into something that was possible,” she said. “My group faced many challenges but they worked through these challenges.” She reflected,
I see the need for a civic engagement program in our classrooms. My students are considered to be highest poverty. The vast majority receives free or reduced[-price] school lunch. Many of my eight-year-olds feel that college is out of the question because they are not smart enough. A program like Public Achievement would provide my kids with an opportunity to meet people other than teachers who have college degrees. Positive interactions with adults would build [their] confidence. The problem-solving model in Public Achievement would strengthen [their] critical thinking skills.
Thorp’s experience as a Public Achievement coach helped shape her perceptions of education and her bond with LSC–K. When asked why she wanted to work with current LSC–K students to create a Public Achievement program at Southside Primary, she said,
Our kids need to feel they are able to impact their fate. Public Achievement provides that type of opportunity. Intervening early with programs like Public Achievement could help break the cycle of poverty and learned helplessness within this community. Fortunately, my exposure to Public Achievement in college provided me with an enormous tool to inspire
During the 2015–16 school year, Thorp worked with LSC–K to introduce the Public Achievement program to Southside Primary, where she now serves as the program’s site coordinator. Over the past three school years, 145 first- and second-grade students have worked with more than sixty college coaches in two teachers’ classrooms.
Deliberative Dialogue and Alumni
LSC–K has been working to build a robust deliberative dialogue program for five years (Theis and Forhan 2017). The goal of the program is to develop students’ skills in moderating difficult conversations on controversial issues. Deliberative dialogue is a key democratic skill and is often used together with public work approaches to problem solving such as Public Achievement.
By facilitating regular dialogues on campus and in the community, LSC–K students learn the skills that will carry them forward as they engage in their communities as alumni. As trained moderators fan out into the local communities after they graduate, we hope to turn to them to lead discussions that provide residents with productive ways to deal with controversial issues, while keeping these alumni engaged with LSC–K. This approach is already paying dividends, as I recently recruited an LSC–K graduate as my copresenter for a speech I gave about deliberative dialogue at Texas State University.
Building Alumni Networks
Community colleges will have to be creative in building networks of civically engaged alumni. LSC–K will continue to grow its Citizen Alum program by keeping recent graduates who participated in civic engagement programs involved and by highlighting their civic work on our website and in publications. We will draw on former Public Achievement coaches and deliberative dialogue moderators to create a civic network of alumni that will strengthen democratic practices in communities, mentor current LSC–K students, and take the skills they learned at LSC–K with them as they move forward in life.
Augsburg University. n.d. “Public Achievement.” http://www.augsburg.edu/sabo/what-we-do/publicachievement/.
Theis, John J., and Fagan Forhan. 2017. “Addressing Wicked Problems through Deliberative Dialogue.” Diversity & Democracy 20 (1): 16–18. https://www.aacu.org/diversitydemocracy/2017/winter/theis.
US Census Bureau. 2016a. “Quick Facts: Cleveland City, Texas.” https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/clevelandcitytexas/PST045216.
US Census Bureau. 2016b. “Quick Facts: Texas.” https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/TX.
John J. Theis is Director, Center for Civic Engagement at Lone Star College–Kingwood.