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Supporting Students through Community Connections
Over the past few years, Northern Arizona University (NAU) has launched an innovative initiative for civic engagement and democratic action. Called Community Re-engagement for Arizona Families, Transitions, and Sustainability (CRAFTS), the initiative aims to nurture public scholarship through collaborative research and action with diverse community partners in the NAU region and beyond. Focusing on the needs of Arizona's families, especially those made vulnerable by life-changing transitions, CRAFTS seeks to unite the passion of undergraduates who want to make a difference with that of community members seeking coalitions to effect change, especially around issues of environmental sustainability and social justice.
The CRAFTS vision contrasts sharply with educational trends that accent private interests and frame students as consumers. Rather, CRAFTS fosters the enormous and largely untapped potential of students, faculty, and community partners to exercise imaginative leadership that is problem-based, interdisciplinary, systemic, and context-driven. CRAFTS is a vital component of NAU's broader commitment to respecting diversity, promoting sustainability, and educating students to be cocreators of a cooperative commonwealth in a world that seems to spin faster and grow smaller all the time.
While CRAFTS is developing pedagogies of civic engagement that involve all members of the NAU community—undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff—it has focused particularly on providing opportunities for first-year students. Roughly one-third of NAU freshmen are members of the first generation in their families to attend college. These first-generation students often face substantial challenges, including insufficient preparation for college, and NAU likewise faces serious challenges in retaining them. CRAFTS seeks to enhance retention by providing an engaging and supportive context for learning that connects students' curricular work to meaningful activities in their communities. Many participating first-year students continue to be democratically engaged as they advance through college, thus contributing greatly to NAU's overall civic vitality.
At CRAFTS's core are Action Research Teams (ARTs), in which students pursue curricular work that addresses public problems. (See Nina Porter's article in this issue for one example.) Each ART draws on multiple lines of inquiry to engage incoming students in high-impact work that they will ideally pursue into the second semester and beyond. ARTs typically involve five key elements, forming an integrated "quintet" designed to enhance student success and promote a vibrant culture of civic engagement:
1. The First Year Seminar Program offers a number of engaged pedagogy seminars each semester. In fall 2011, 13 percent of all first-year students will enroll in nearly two dozen seminars on topics such as water in the Southwest, green energy economy, immigration, K–12 civic education, alternative food systems, indigenous environmental justice, global human rights, and grassroots democracy.
2. Each seminar links with a community partner. These partners have included interfaith organizations, environmental groups, elementary schools, local food producers, human rights groups, and nonprofit groups among Native peoples.
3. Through extensive deliberation, each seminar develops an action research project that becomes a new line of inquiry for a related ART. These projects interweave knowledge learned in the classroom with knowledge of local communities to creatively address issues and enhance the public good.
4. In order to help first-year students better acculturate to active learning and enhance their capacities for action research, the ARTs feature mentoring relationships. These relationships break down age-based stratifications by connecting first-year students to advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and in some cases even elders in the community.
5. Finally, many ARTs projects are linked to themed Residential Learning Communities that focus on topics like sustainable environments and engaged democracy.
Remarkably, CRAFTS has begun to shift campus culture. More NAU students are displaying the capacities of active, creative, collaborative learners, and their grassroots leadership is beginning to make a difference. Moreover, NAU is doing more than building connections between the university and the immediate community: by connecting with efforts like the American Democracy Project's Civic Agency Initiative, we are creating links across the country and around the world. NAU's faculty, staff, and students are doing our part to reverse decades-long trends of weakening democracy and develop practices of educational excellence that are genuinely of, by, and for the people.