Liberal Education

From the Guest Editor: A Confounding Promise

This issue is not a collection of articles on how to teach community engagement. It is not a set of case studies. It is not about assessment. It tackles something less discussed but just as crucial: the fact that the often-complicated insights, confrontations, and sobering realities that characterize students’ reactions to being part of a community create experiential highs and lows. In short, community engagement can be confounding.

Yet the evidence shows that the transformative effects of community engagement on student learning and development are significantly, and consistently, positive. Students’ engagement in communities produces real opportunities for applying and integrating learning, for developing a sense of flourishing and self-efficacy, and for fostering a range of civic outcomes. Without question, community engagement remains one of the most promising experiences colleges and universities can offer.

If ever there has been a time to take on what community engagement means in all its complexities, it is now. The road to civil discourse, on and off campus, is increasingly obstructed by partisan divides. Ironically, as the world grows more diverse, the communities in which we find ourselves—online, in our neighborhoods, in our schools—are becoming ever more homogenous. The rapid diversification of American higher education within this broader context raises deep and uncomfortable questions about who makes up democracy and who has agency and voice within it. Accordingly, colleges and universities have the opportunity to consider how community-engaged experiences go beyond commitments to citizenship to address twenty-first-century commitments about equity.

The essays in this issue tackle the complexity of community. Who or what defines it? Who is included? Why does thinking equitably about student success need to be at the heart of it all? Peter Levine of Tufts University looks back at the civil rights era and its prescient implications for today’s student activism and success. Levine reminds us that to flourish is to find purpose, to experience sacrifice for a cause larger than your individual desires, and to share that with others. Colleagues from California State University–Channel Islands, Oxnard College, and Santa Barbara City College describe their collaboration to create a “college going” community that encourages underserved students in their region to seek a degree. Marta Elena Esquilin and Timothy K. Eatman discuss how they have upended the model for honors programs. At Rutgers University–Newark, they have turned the Honors Living-Learning Community into an inclusive, assets-based model focused on belonging, equity, and cultural wealth. Leeva C. Chung of the University of San Diego and her former student Daniel McArdle-Jaimes detail the value of alumni mentors as vital connectors within students’ career and community networks. Finally, Jason Leggett of City University of New York Kingsborough Community College flips discussions about the role of technology and virtual communities by arguing that we’ve missed the point: technology doesn’t create communities; communities create technology.

The articles in this issue take on the hard questions of community engagement, not because they have all the answers but because the opportunities that come from engagement are so important. It is our challenge to make sure that those opportunities are not just for the few who participate in service learning or study abroad but for all who walk our campuses and hope to change the world.

Previous Issues