Weaving Together Career and Civic Commitments for Social Change

“Recognizing that affordability is as much about quality outcomes as costly input, we will provide the next decade’s students with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in satisfying and remunerative careers that will justify the expense of undergraduate and graduate education.”

—Rochester Institute of Technology 2014 (emphasis added).


The above quote from the Rochester Institute of Technology’s 2015–2025 strategic plan is one example of how an institution has embraced the public’s focus on return on investment (ROI). They are not alone. Clearly, those in higher education have heard the message and are striving to prove that graduates will be workforce ready and that the return (salary upon graduation) is worthy of the student’s (or parents’) investment.

Educating Students for Public Life and Private Gain

But what does this emphasis on workforce preparation, and the narrow focus on remuneration, mean for the civic mission of higher education? What does it mean for higher education’s role in educating students for public life as well as private gain? Historically, American higher education has sought to balance career and workforce preparation with an emphasis on the development of students’ civic commitments and their capacity as citizens and builders of the commons. However, with this new focus on the individual student’s earning potential and narrowly defined preparation for work, higher education is ignoring the significant social and economic realities that threaten our nation’s social cohesiveness, economic competitiveness, and even the viability of our democracy.

As reported in A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future, our college graduates are having to enter a world defined by “intensified global competition,” increasing “demographic diversity,” and “dangerous economic inequalities” (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement 2012, 20). The structural nature of our society’s racism, classism, sexism, hetero-sexism, and able-ism, among other forms of oppression, continues to alienate and systematically marginalize significant segments of our population. Nationwide, our demographics have shifted, as we approach 2044 when it is estimated that the United States will be a “majority minority nation” (Frey 2014). The majority populations of the largest twenty cities are now non-white. And while enrollment of students of color in higher education has increased dramatically over the past two decades, the “achievement gap” remains. Low-income minority students graduate at much lower rates than their middle- and upper-class white counterparts (Campaign for College Opportunity 2013); in fact, only one in ten low-income students will complete a college degree (Achievement First 2014). Furthermore, as we have seen all too frequently in the past year, fifty years after the passage of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, we are still struggling to learn that “Black and Brown Lives Matter.”

Unfortunately, the narrow focus on workforce preparation and an individual student’s ROI ignores the deep-seated societal divisions and inequities that continue to undermine our cohesiveness, threaten our productivity, and imperil the fabric of our democracy. As the report by the National Task Force eloquently states:

A socially cohesive and economically vibrant US democracy and a viable, just global community require informed, engaged, open-minded, and socially responsible people committed to the common good and practiced in ‘doing democracy’ (13).

This requires that we move beyond a narrow focus on economic capital (the individual student’s ROI) to a framework that recognizes the importance of social, cultural, civic, and political capital as well. Our students, as future professionals and engaged community members, need to leave college with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to build a new, more inclusive, and more equitable multicultural commons. And most importantly, we need to see this broader skillset as essential preparation for both work and civic life.

What kinds of questions about social justice, inequality, and democracy need to be inserted as a vibrant part of all students’ education? And how do the intentional structures for raising those questions influence disciplinary preparation for professional practice? Below we present examples from our work as faculty members at institutions that have made explicit and systematic commitments to a more holistic approach to the preparation for work and civic life that is grounded in social justice concerns. Though California State University–Monterey Bay (CSUMB) and Pitzer College are quite different institutions, they are united in their commitment to engaged learning that addresses social inequities, and to building long-term partnerships with underserved and marginalized communities as a core component of our academic programs.

CSUMB: Integrating Social Justice, Civic Engagement, and Career Preparation

California State University–Monterey Bay is recognized as a national leader in service learning and civic engagement. It is one of only a handful of public universities that has made service learning a graduation requirement. In addition, CSUMB’s service-learning program is grounded in social justice, an approach which it calls “critical civic literacy” (Pollack 2015). Distinct from a traditional civics approach, critical civic literacy emphasizes the role of power in facilitating or inhibiting meaningful participation in decision making and civic life. As all departments at CSUMB have to develop service-learning courses, critical civic literacy is integrated into the core knowledge base of each of the degree programs. The departments themselves have had to wrestle with issues of diversity and social justice in new ways as they have developed their service-learning courses. As a result, the core curriculum has been transformed, and new questions and concerns about social justice, equity, and social responsibility are being asked as part of the evolving cannon in the academic programs.

For example, computer science students are not just engaging with the latest technology in the community. They are asking fundamental questions about the digital divide: how can technology serve to reduce systemic inequities and social divisions? In business, students are doing more than just focusing on profit maximization and entrepreneurship. They are exploring questions related to the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit: how can businesses be more sustainable, people friendly, and beholden to a wider set of community stakeholders, and not just stockholders? And in math, students are asking questions about who does and doesn’t get through algebra, the gateway course to higher education, and why.

At CSUMB, we say that our goal is not just to produce workforce-ready professionals, but rather, to produce socially responsible and social justice-oriented professionals. We describe this goal as creating “multicultural community builders: students who have the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to work effectively in a diverse society to create more just and equitable workplaces, communities, and social institutions” (CSUMB).

This goal guides curriculum and academic program development campus-wide, and its impact can be seen in a number of ways. First, it can be seen in the faculty that are being hired in tenure-track positions. As the core curriculum addresses issues of social justice, it is important that there are faculty with the expertise to deliver that aspect of the curriculum. As a result, the makeup of our departments is changing. Secondly, the impact can be seen in the partnerships that the academic programs build with organizations (businesses, nonprofits, governmental agencies, unions, etc.) that work with the marginalized communities in our region. CSUMB’s academic programs are not just developing partnerships for traditional internships, they are also developing relationships that provide their students with meaningful opportunities to experience and address the deep-seated systemic inequities that exist in the region. For example, hospitality students in the College of Business can become interns with the elite hotels and golf courses on the Monterey Peninsula. But, the same students are also building relationships with the families of the workers at those hotels as they volunteer with tax preparation clinics being offered by the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program. This year, VITA secured more than $2,719,000 to 1,975 low-income families in our community through tax refunds, or an average of $1,675 per family. Kinesiology students are finding internships with high-end physical therapy and athletic training offices throughout the region, but they are also working with programs that address diabetes and childhood obesity and with organizations that provide recreation outlets to severely disabled youth and elders. Because the curriculum focuses on issues of social justice, the faculty and the academic departments themselves are investing in long-term relationships with diverse community actors. And it is the students who are reaping the rewards of these investments in social capital, as newly formed connections are being built across long-standing societal divisions.

A third way that the impact can be seen is in the career choices and civic commitments of CSUMB graduates. The deep divides and social inequities that exist in our society act to limit the kinds of careers that students can imagine themselves as having and the kinds of communities in which students can imagine themselves living. Left unchallenged, these deep-seated biases and prejudices serve as an internal red lining process, demarcating entire careers and communities as unworthy—no viable future to be found. However, as students confront these biases in class and then build new meaningful relationships in the community, their career and community boundaries expand. Communities previously seen either as “places to get out of” or “places to avoid” are now seen as possible new homes that are worthy of the investment of one’s time and energy. Students also begin to experience greater social and cultural capital ROI and discover new ways to integrate their profession and social justice commitments. Here are a few quotes from recent computer science students that show this influence:

  • “My work at the service-learning site has changed the path I want to take with my professional career. At first I wanted to create my own start-up so that my financial income would increase. What I want to do now is become a professor and speaker so I can encourage children to become software engineers.”
  • “One of the impacts that this site has had on my professional career is the drive to want to get younger kids interested in computer science … to help reach out to younger girls and let them know that computer science is a possibility for them. The lack of women in gaming and computer science is saddening, so we are trying to make a difference.”
  • “I had never considered becoming an instructor for an educational institution, but the work done at this service-learning site has definitely given me experience toward this field. Even if I don’t choose to become an instructor, the skills acquired are helpful in many aspects.”

By designing a curriculum that treats issues of social justice and inequality as core content in their majors, CSUMB gives students an opportunity to develop their social purpose as they also develop their career trajectory. The two are complementary, as students reap the rich rewards of their (and the university’s) investment in economic, social, cultural, and civic capital.

Pitzer College: Social Justice through Political Engagement

At Pitzer College, the focus has been on using community-based engagement and research to create outcomes that result in social change. Most distinctively, we are focused both on the impact of our partnerships in the community and on the lives and career opportunities of our students. In all of our efforts, the focus is on building more just and equitable communities and enriching our democracy. One example was the successful organizing effort in 2012 by Pitzer students, faculty, and community members to defeat Measure T, a bill to undermine representative democracy in the community. The bill sought to replace the system of specific council districts, created to ensure representation of Pomona’s disenfranchised communities, with an at-large election system. It was the research of Pitzer students and community members that ultimately was able to create a multiracial coalition and actively work to defeat the measure.

This example is not an isolated example but reflects an ethos of community engagement that has emerged as a common practice through Pitzer College’s Center for Community Engagement and affiliated classes. This ethos is entrenched in the advancement of intercultural and interdisciplinary understanding as well as in the ideal of democracy translated as social responsibility. Through campus–community partnering, our students and faculty engage in acts of collaboration that go beyond the charity or project paradigms to a model of social change that builds partnerships of equality between all the participants, that gets at the root causes of problems, and that focuses directly or indirectly on political empowerment (Morton 1995).

As these long-term partnerships are developed, students and faculty can become civically engaged forces in their communities. Once engaged they come to see themselves as participants with a stake in the decisions being made and are challenged to find common grounds of collaboration with community institutions, unions, organizations, and neighborhood leaders to invoke social consciousness and long-term structural change.

This type of community engagement uses history, research, teaching, and learning to bring about fundamental social change. It leads us in the direction of creating new ways of carrying out democratic forms of learning and curriculum building in our classrooms; and to new models of building partnership in our communities that are about the creation of a more democratic, equitable, and socially just culture in our society. Because of our long-term commitment to specific sites and specific community collaborations, this type of community engagement allows the collaboration to build trust and to be able to get at the root causes of problems.

One of the main results of this practice has been the many students who have been affected long term to continue the study and work that influenced and involved them. To name a few, for example, Suzanne Foster, who interned with the Pomona Day Labor Center during her four years at Pitzer, went on to obtain a master’s degree in urban planning at UCLA, became the director of the day labor center in 2007, and copublished an article on the center, “Organizing Immigrant Workers: Action Research and Strategies in the Pomona Day Labor Center” in Latino Los Angeles. Jessica Arciniega, who worked with the United Farm Workers Union after graduation, obtained her law degree through an apprenticeship program and is now the assistant general counsel of the California Agricultural Relations Board. Michele Siquieros, a daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico, who helped to develop the first class that took Pitzer students to live and work with farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley, is now the director of a statewide program, The Campaign for College Opportunity, which is expanding access and success in college for California students.

Another student who was a leader in both the day laborer and farm worker partnerships, Brianne Davila, is now an assistant professor in sociology at California State Polytechnic University–Pomona. Juan de Lara, Pitzer’s first Rhodes scholar, is now an expert on inequality and the warehouse economy as a professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Kevin de Leon, who, when he was a student at Pitzer, helped lead a demonstration that drew 100,000 in East Los Angeles against Proposition 187, is now the Senate Pro Tempore, one of the most powerful positions in the state. Fabian Nunez, who graduated from Pitzer and was the first board chair of the Pomona Day Labor Center, came to hold the position of California state assembly speaker. Joaquin Calderon is a program officer with First 5 LA, an organization that partners with parents, community members, elected officials, county agencies, and service providers to ensure that all children enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and in life. The list includes Sekou Andrews, a national award-winning spoken word poet. Dozens of other students, such as David Pihl, Sergio Donis, Alex Espinoza, and Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, are in positions as researchers, organizers, and directors in national and international unions.

These are careers that on one level are about sustaining the individual and on another are about continuing to develop creative forms of positioning and organizing to create democratic spaces of forward-looking social change. All these students, as examples, continued to advance a practice that they had been part of in their undergraduate years, when they experienced the classroom as part of the civic realm and engaged with their communities to find solutions to economic, political, and social community problems. It shows the return that is possible on one’s investment in terms of economic, civic, and, perhaps most importantly, political capital.

Recognizing the Value of Social, Cultural, Civic, and Political Capital

Rather than seeking to focus narrowly on the individual student’s economic ROI in college, both CSUMB and Pitzer have developed a more complex understanding of ROI. This more holistic perspective is grounded not only in economic return (i.e., salary), but in recognizing the value of social, cultural, civic, and political capital. It in no way limits one’s expectations on the ROI of a college degree. Rather, it creates a more holistic and integrated vision for the college graduate, representative of both the workforce development priorities and higher education’s civic mission.

If the institution’s stated goal is the narrow focus on economic ROI, then we develop our academic programs and community partnerships with that goal in mind. However, if we look to help students build the social, cultural, civic, and political capital that they truly need to navigate our increasingly complex and divided world, then our academic programs must develop a different curriculum, and our institutions must build relationships with a much more diverse set of institutions that are engaged in struggles for equity and justice. In that way, our students will be able to develop both remunerative and meaningful careers and social justice commitments, and they will provide new innovative solutions to our society’s deep-seated, systemic problems.



Achievement First. 2015. “Our Approach: Achievement Gap and Mission.” http://www.achievementfirst.org/our-approach/achievement-gap-and-mission/.

California State University–Monterey Bay. N.D. “Mission, Philosophy & Goals of SLI.” Service Learning Institute web page. Monterey, CA: California State University–Monterey Bay. https://csumb.edu/service/mission-philosophy-goals-sli.

Campaign for College Opportunity. 2013. The State of Blacks in Higher Education in California. Los Angeles: Campaign for College Opportunity. http://collegecampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/State_of_Higher_Education_ Black-1.pdf.

Frey, William. 2014. “New Projections Point to a Majority Minority Nation in 2044.” The Avenue (blog). Washington, DC: Brookings Institute. http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/the-avenue/posts/2014/12/12-majority-minority-nation-2044-frey.

Morton, Keith. 1995. “The Irony of Service: Charity, Project, and Social Change in Service Learning.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 2: 19–32.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Pollack, Seth. 2015. “(Social) Justice for All (Undergraduate Degree Programs): Institutionalizing Critical Civic Literacy in the Undergraduate Curriculum.” In Civic Learning and Teaching, edited by Ashley Finley, 9–18. Washington, DC: Bringing Theory to Practice.

Rochester Institute of Technology. 2014. “Greatness Through Difference: RIT’s 2015–2025 Strategic Plan.” http://www.rit.edu/president/pdfs/greatness_through_difference_long.pdf.

José Zapata Calderón is professor emeritus of sociology and Chicano/a and Latino/a studies at Pitzer College; and Seth S. Pollack is professor of service learning, and founding faculty director of the Service Learning Institute, at California State University–Monterey Bay


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