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Pathways of Public Service and Civic Engagement

A nationwide effort to make service a way of life

By Ben Dedman

November 18, 2021

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When college students first experience civic and community engagement, they often see it as “just volunteering.” A group of colleges and universities is trying to change that narrative.

Faculty, staff, and administrators from seventy-six institutions have collaborated to develop the Pathways of Public Service and Civic Engagement framework. “In creating the pathways, we were trying to figure out how we can help our students get from a mindset that ‘service is just volunteering’ to ‘service can be a way of life,’” says Gail Robinson, a pathways consultant for the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University.

Originally created in 2013 by Stanford’s Haas Center, the pathways framework is regularly refined by a national working group. The framework now focuses on the six “pathways” that students can follow to pursue academic experiences and careers related to civic engagement, public service, and contributing to the “common good”:

  1. Community-Engaged Learning and Research: Connecting coursework and academic research to community-identified concerns to enrich knowledge and inform action on social issues.
  2. Direct Service: Working to address the immediate needs of individuals or a community, often involving contact with the people or places being served.
  3. Policy and Governance: Participating in political processes, policymaking, and public governance.
  4. Community Organizing and Activism: Involving, educating, and mobilizing individual or collective action to influence or persuade others.
  5. Philanthropy: Donating or using private funds or charitable contributions from individuals or institutions to contribute to the public good.
  6. Social Entrepreneurship and Corporate Social Responsibility: Using ethical business or private sector approaches to create or expand market-oriented responses to social or environmental problems.

Students at participating campuses take a brief survey that gets them to explore their prior experiences, future goals, and perceptions of each pathway. Together, the six pathways and the survey responses are powerful tools to help students and their mentors make informed decisions about civic engagement opportunities in the curriculum, cocurriculum, and future careers. More than eleven thousand students across the country have used the survey.

Below, three members of the national working group discuss how colleges and universities are using the pathways to engage students in contributing to the public good.

The pathways were created to help students “contribute to the common good.” How do you define that?

This is what a lot of our work as educators is about: higher education’s obligation to create graduates that are ready to be active members of communities and be able to generate and contribute to positive change. Educators also have the responsibility to connect the things they teach to society, to policies, and to the ways that students can contribute depending on their discipline or their career choice. The six pathways really help illuminate that there are many different ways for students to contribute, and they can figure out which ones work for their style, their personality, and the work they want to do.Kristen Wright, Director of Civic Engagement, George Mason University

Why six pathways? What do they tell us about public service or civic engagement?

We’re always telling students, “Go out. Change the world.” The pathways give a way to talk about how they’re going to change the world and connect it back to the academic curriculum at the same time.Amy Cohen, Executive Director of the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, George Washington University

We want to make this useful for the largest number of institutions possible. To do that, over the years, the labels and definitions of the pathways have shifted. The framework originally had five pathways; now there are six. This isn’t intended to be a perfect typology—there are definitely areas of overlap. At one point, for example, our definition of the policy and governance pathway included advocacy. Like many concepts, advocacy occurs across multiple pathways. It is also found in community organizing and activism, partly because that’s how students see their own work with issues like Black Lives Matter and climate change.Gail Robinson, Pathways Consultant, Stanford University

Can you tell me about the Pathways of Public Service and Civic Engagement survey?

It’s a five-minute online survey intended to measure students’ proclivities and interests toward the pathways. We give examples and definitions for the six pathways and ask students the same four things about each one:

  1. How much experience do you have in this pathway?
  2. How much interest do you have in exploring this pathway during college?
  3. Considering your current strengths, how much impact do you think you personally could have through this pathway?
  4. In general, how much impact do you think this pathway has on social issues?

After students take the survey, they get a results page that graphically shows what they are most interested or experienced in. The idea is that they share their results page with their faculty member or advisor, who can help students find opportunities such as assignments, courses, student clubs, or cocurricular activities to explore the pathways. Faculty and staff can get a report to see de-identified, aggregated results of their students’ responses.—Gail Robinson, Stanford University

What do students think about the surveys?

Students aren’t necessarily surprised by the results. They know what they’ve done, and they know what they are drawn toward. But a lot of students indicate that they think the best ways of making a change are not the things they’ve actually been doing. They might really think people can make a big difference through organizing, or activism, or policymaking, but they’ve never done it. That’s a really interesting point of conversation: Why haven’t you tried those things? Why do you think they are effective? What don’t you think is effective about what you’ve been doing?Kristen Wright, George Mason University

What do the data tell you about public service and civic engagement?

What we see consistently, regardless of the number of students or colleges participating in the survey in a given year, is that students see direct service as the number one pathway that they have experienced, that they have interest in, and that they think can make the most impact.

One pathway that was often at the bottom of the scale was policy and governance. But after the 2016 presidential election, students now see that policy and governance are really important. This helps us think, as educators, how we can have discussions, reflections, assignments, and activities related to policy and governance that show students how they can be involved. For example, if you’re a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) student and you can’t vote, how can you have an impact on local policy or your city council? How can you affect campus governance?—Gail Robinson, Stanford University

How are different colleges and universities using the pathways framework and survey?

There’s no particular way to use them; we aren’t prescriptive. We just hope as many institutions as possible use the pathways in whatever ways they want. The most common ways that campuses use the pathways are in academic courses (most often service-learning courses), leadership programs, or first-year experiences and seminars. They are also used in cocurricular programs and in advising. At Stanford, the pathways formed the basis of an academic theme within a living-learning community. The College of DuPage, a community college in Illinois, used the survey in a biology class as a service-learning assignment related to environmental sustainability challenges in the local community. The University of Wisconsin–Parkside used the pathways in a first-year seminar to help students make career connections. Whitworth University in Washington State links the pathways to their annual day of service. And Juniata College in Pennsylvania requires students to take the survey in their first-year seminar and in community engagement courses that are shaped by the pathways.—Gail Robinson, Stanford University

At GW, we host a living-learning community for first-year students. They take a course together throughout the year and participate in service events called Civic Saturdays. About four years ago, we created themes for each Saturday based on the pathways so that students get exposure in all six. We bring in outside speakers, or the students do a service project with a partner. We’ve also used the framework with graduate students in the public policy program. When we did a workshop around the framework, the graduate students looked not only at what the pathways are but at jobs and other opportunities that fit in each pathway. It provided a lot of clarity for students about what they have been doing and where they might go next.—Amy Cohen, George Washington University

At George Mason, we use the pathways in first-year experiences, leadership conferences with students, and other places where students are trying to learn a little bit about themselves and what they want to do. In our annual leadership conference, we use the pathways framework and survey to help students learn about their identity as a leader and how they might lead change in a community. We also used it this year in our residence halls. Students can choose stickers that show the pathways they identify with, and they can put them on display boards in common areas. This way, they have a visual representation that explores the ways they can contribute to social change in their first years on campus.—Kristen Wright, George Mason University

Does your framework fit with other pathways models, such as guided pathways or career pathways?

It’s just another tool that campuses, such as community colleges that have guided pathways, can use to help students figure out where they should go next. If campuses already have a guided pathways or career pathways program, the Pathways of Public Service and Civic Engagement are perfect for them to use with their students.—Gail Robinson, Stanford University

How can colleges or universities get involved in the working group?

Information about joining the working group is available on the group’s website. It has a demo version of the survey that anyone can try. It’s a noncollecting instrument and won’t share any data about your results. Campuses sign an agreement for one year, which can be renewed. It’s a rolling process, so you can join anytime. We welcome as many institutions as are interested in going down these pathways with us.—Gail Robinson, Stanford University


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.