Student engagement – Learning skills, changing lives

Basavanagouda Patil is a final year student at the National Law School of India University. Much of his time is spent volunteering at the award-winning Legal Services Clinic, whose committee he leads, and which among other things provides legal services for the poor and public interest litigation. The work has helped countless people, has taught him practical and leadership skills and – as regularly happens with student community engagement – has changed the course of his life.

“My trajectory was quite different. My final year has been spent working with the clinic, and that has involved a lot of policy formulation and implementation. So I think I will go into legal policy studies, and will study the drafting of laws because I see how they play out in the field and impact at the practical level,” Patil told University World News.

“The clinic has narrowed down my choice very easily. I can see that I am interested in x, y, z. If I hadn’t volunteered at the clinic I would have chosen something else. So it has influenced me to a really great level.”

The Legal Services Clinic was one of three student projects to win a 2014 MacJannet Prize.

The annual prize was established by the Talloires Network – an international association of 315 institutions in 72 countries that are committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of universities – and the MacJannet Foundation.

First prize went to the Rec and Read Mentorship programme for Aboriginal youth and young people in diverse communities, at Canada’s University of Manitoba, while third prize was won by the Wits Initiative for Rural Health Education, which supports disadvantaged students from rural areas in South Africa to become health professionals.

The idea is to recognise exceptional student engagement initiatives at Talloires member universities and to contribute financially to their efforts. Representatives of the winning projects, along with other students, will be attending the upcoming Talloires Network Leaders Conference in Cape Town from 2-4 December. University World News is the media partner.

Benefits of engagement

Two of the legal services clinic projects have won a MacJannet prize. One is an outreach initiative in which the National Law School – India’s top ranked school – helps other law colleges in less developed districts of Karnataka state to set up legal aid clinics. The second involves the Junior Justice Board, which students help directly with research and other work.

The clinic is run entirely by students, although it does have one faculty advisor who oversees its work, and academics help the students with, for instance, contacts and permissions as well as monitoring their work.

Undoubtedly the clinic helps people who cannot afford legal support, but there are also lots of benefits for students, said Patil.

“They get first-hand experience of working directly with a client. Last year we had more than 100 clients. It’s not only clients coming into the clinic – we also have a dedicated phone where clients call us and seek legal advice.”

Students experience how law actually works. They learn about contract law, family law, divorce and child welfare. “All these are in theory in the classroom but in practice at the clinic.

“What we tried doing last year, particularly after winning the MacJannet, is to harmonise and integrate academics and practice. Because we do not want to see students graduate without having any practical exposure,” said Patil.

Aside from 18 or so student committee members, there are around 200 student volunteers working at the clinic. Students are recognised by the university for legal clinic work, not in academic credits but with attendance credits, in speeches at graduation ceremonies, and with certificates of merit awarded on graduation.

Professor Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo and a member of the steering committee of the Talloires Network, believes universities need to promote the spirit of social engagement among students.

They need to “model it as institutions – are we acting responsibly in our communities, in our procurement, our hiring, our outreach? – and to encourage faculty to rethink how they teach to reflect the opportunities for learning in civic engagement".

“This is not easy; institutions and individuals can get set in their ways, but the satisfactions of seeing what you do make a difference more than compensate for the inconvenience and anxiety that usually attend adopting new routines,” Anderson told University World News.

The American University in Cairo has a programme in which students earn credit for teaching English to the university’s custodian and security staff.

“They are supervised by our masters candidates in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, so we know the methods the students use are pedagogically sound; they get to know members of the campus community they would probably not encounter in a serious way otherwise; our workers learn a useful skill, and everyone comes to be proud of the role they play at the university.

“It is a wonderful example of how civic engagement can benefit all kinds of communities – even before leaving the campus!”

Who are engaged students, and why are they engaged?

“I think most young people today don’t have the patience, the instinctual deference to authority, or the parochialism of past generations. They want to make an impact, they want to do it now, and they know there is much that needs to be done,” said Anderson.

“Certainly there are students who are interested in civic engagement because it burnishes their resume, but even they are changed by the experience, as they learn about the world beyond their doorstep.”

Professor Peter Levine, associate dean at Tufts University in Massachusetts – home to the Talloires Network secretariat – and director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, CIRCLE, pointed to the academic benefits of engagement.

CIRCLE research has found a link between educational progress and volunteering among young adults, and has found that volunteering seems to ease the transition to civilian life for returning veterans.

A paper by Alberto Dávila and Marie T Mora found a positive link between community service and academic performance, with students engaged in school-required community service 22% more likely to graduate from college than those who did not, and with students performing voluntary community service 19% more likely to graduate.

Some trends

Engagement today responds to a trend of students increasingly focused on learning by doing, according to Lisa Anderson.

“The era of the iconic image of ‘education’ as students sitting in rows of desks is fast being supplanted by pictures of young people bent over test tubes doing research on endemic disease, kneeling beside elementary school children teaching reading and teamwork, sitting at conference tables developing policy advice in parliamentarians' offices.

“Students today want, and need, to be released from the classroom in order to learn,” she told University World News.

There were two trends that were supporting greater student engagement, said Todd Langton, chair of the board of the MacJannet Foundation. One was technology, which allowed people from institutions across the world to share information and communicate.

For instance, some prize nominees had developed projects in Afghanistan for educating girls. “There were little or no resources, but with an internet connection they were able to take training guidance and best practices from a volunteer leadership programme at the University of Singapore that had a great train-the-trainer manual for orienting volunteers.

“So through technology you’re able to have a wonderful exchange of resources and ideas that really enables most student leadership initiatives,” he told University World News.

The second trend, also related to technology, was within universities.

“One of the challenges of student volunteer initiatives is succession and turnover. Students are by definition only there for a short while. One of the best practices we have seen is institutional knowledge and how to keep it.

“Using technology, universities are able to guide student efforts without getting in the way, because you really want student engagement to be a grassroots effort. The technology enables best practices to be shared within the university for future generations of students.

“So globally there is the ability to share, and within institutions there is the ability to have knowledge management databases and to preserve organisational knowledge for future generations of users,” said Langton.

Developing leadership skills

There is a strong connection between student civic engagement and the development of leadership skills – another of the numerous benefits of engagement activities – said the American University in Cairo's Lisa Anderson.

“Civic engagement requires assuming personal responsibility for more than a course grade. Whether your experiment succeeds, your seven-year-olds learn to read, or your policy advice is heard, depends on skills of diligence, empathy, advocacy and more.

“These, plus the self confidence of knowing you have such skills, make a leader. People are not leaders if they are completely preoccupied with themselves, and civic engagement ensures that they cannot be,” she argued.

Todd Langton said universities were finding that getting students engaged was key to leadership skills development.

“You can theoretically explain leadership development in class, but there is no better laboratory for leadership than to experience it in doing. The experiential component of leadership development is so important.”

Many big businesses now teach leadership by having people solve pressing problems of the organisation through case studies and other exercises, Langton pointed out. “You can observe how people react, you can find leaders and coach leaders in a laboratory way by having them respond to real problems.”

“There is no better laboratory for universities than to embrace developing leadership in students by helping the community. Some universities are requiring an element of volunteerism in giving back to the university community or the broader community, to try to create better student leaders.

“That’s a great, positive trend and one that we really want to embrace, recognise and reward. That’s really what the MacJannet prizes and the Talloires Network are trying to foster.”

Basavanagouda Patil, the student at the National Law School of India, described the question of leadership qualities as “primary". "Leadership quality comes with the power to make a decision,” he says.

At the legal clinic, students are given the freedom to decide what the clinic should focus on, what they do and members are assigned particular projects for which they call for volunteers and in which they can develop their leadership skills.

“In order to attract students to social causes, you make it a little incentive-based. The students get to decide on a host of things, and they can also showcase their skills. In my limited experience, I think I’ve figured out that this contributes majorly to decision-making – it empowers you to take a stand, either yes or no.”

The MacJannet prize

The MacJannet Foundation was started by Donald and Charlotte MacJannet. During his life Donald MacJannet had developed international schools and summer camps for children that focused on experiential learning and creating a sense of international citizenship.

“This spirit is in the DNA of the foundation,” Todd Langton told University World News.

“When the Talloires Network approached us, they wanted to create a ‘Nobel prize’, if you will, for student leadership and volunteerism – to do something to really recognise the excellence of those student activities.

“We aim to do two things. One is to raise the public profile of great best practices across institutions. The second is to over time create best practices, by analysing initiatives and student volunteer efforts. What are some of the commonalities, and how can we share them?”

The prize had been highly successful, said Langton, in terms of the number and diversity of nominees and how each effort had been documented.

Looking at student engagement initiatives down the years, there were a number of stand-out messages. Student leadership and volunteer initiatives all face “tremendous challenges".

“One is the challenge of organisation, in getting the initiative started. There is also a challenge of continuity. People are very idealistic and want to give back – but there’s a succession of students who come and go, every two to four years you have a transition.”

So how institutions drive the initiative is very important, how succession is handled and how the initiative is documented, Langton said.

“What we’ve tried to do is provide prestige and recognition to great efforts, to help them get a higher profile within institutions, to give a sense of pride to the institution as a whole so that it will help these efforts in the future.”

Efforts have been made to get prize winners periodically in one place so that they can learn from each other – as will happen around the conference in Cape Town.

“Getting together and planning together and thinking about innovation and best practices for future generations, is really beneficial,” Langton added.

At first glance student projects might appear to have little in common. One might provide eye glasses for the elderly and the poor in Singapore, while another might educate young girls in Afghanistan. “But we try to find similarities".

“Across the dynamics, what are the elements of a great student leader that they all have in common? What does a great volunteer look like? What are the qualities that we can identify and teach student leaders across all boundaries?”

The Talloires Network is researching student initiatives and best practices, which will be published in future. Langton added:

“One of the real benefits of our efforts is the development of specific criteria to evaluate excellence in student volunteer efforts and to benchmark and share best practices in managing these volunteer initiatives.

“The Talloires Network and web-enabling technology have been a great enabler in bringing the world closer together to share best practices across institutions and even between generations of new student leaders within the same institutions,” said Langton.

University volunteer programme

A second major student engagement initiative is the Talloires Network University Volunteer Program, in partnership with Universidad Autónoma de Madrid – UAM – in Portugal and funded by the Santander Group.

The initiative’s goal is “to promote civic engagement and community building through the international exchange of student volunteers within the Talloires Network member institutions”, according to its website.

It “aims to instill long-term values of civic engagement and social responsibility in the volunteers such that they continue to contribute to their local communities and apply their experiences wherever they may go”.

UAM told University World News that the objectives included: “Encouraging social commitment at universities; promoting commitment, responsibility and solidarity in higher education as part of a quality comprehensive education, which contributes to an active citizenship; giving advantage to South-South cooperation; strengthening links among Talloires Network institutions; and promoting the volunteers programme and social commitment as a change tool.”

A 2013-14 pilot programme has been underway, involving 12 universities worldwide.

UAM said the initiative was based on exchanging students as international volunteers who collaborate for six months in other countries on social commitment projects and community jobs led by universities. They are also connected through social media, where they share their volunteer experiences and exchange ideas.

The first edition of the programme in 2013 involved 16 exchange students – five from UAM and 11 from other participating universities – and allowed students to “strengthen their cultural and social skills and create collaborative links with other communities”. UAM is now receiving applications for the second edition, which will involve 18 students.

Volunteer assignments include critical issues in local communities ranging from combating violence against women in Sudan to training health workers in South Africa and using art to develop creative skills among young people in Puerto Rico.

Universidad Autónoma de Madrid Rector José Sanz told University World News that students who engaged with communities developed clear social commitment competences such as democratic and civic values. “These students carry out, in their professional future and society integration, the role of an active and committed conscience.”

Today’s students expect not only excellent learning content but also other learning activities and research projects on social responsibility and cooperation to improve their skills and competences, said Sanz.

Universities in the 21st century were strengthening their “historic objective of teaching people to generate knowledge, and creating new thoughts and critical citizens. In order to develop our objectives we need tools to work for a bigger number of opportunities for cooperation and commitment.”

Hakundwi Mandende

Not all students are aware of the value of civic engagement, and so universities play a key role in disseminating information on its benefits and supporting opportunities for engagement.

The life of Hakundwi Mandende, now a masters student in geology at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, started to change one day when he passed the student services office and stopped to read an article pinned up in the window.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State in South Africa and a prominent public intellectual, was responding to a student who complained that despite obtaining a degree he had not been able to land a job.

Jansen asked the student about what else he had done while studying, and argued that simply obtaining the qualification was not nearly enough – graduates had to demonstrate a wider range of skills and experiences and commitment in order to impress employers.

Mandende immediately signed up as a volunteer working on a gardens project the university was supporting, providing a feeding initiative with extra food to distribute.

Lately, he and four other students have been developing a 'UniBuy' project that will enable students on the campus, which is far from shops, to order in food and other provisions they need – at discount price – instead of wasting time and money on travelling to and from shops.

Students will place orders through an app being developed for free on campus, and members of the local community will take, collect, package and deliver the orders – providing jobs for local currently unemployed people.

Mandende has learned a range of skills through the two projects, and especially UniBuy, which will launch next year and be owned by the community members involved. For example, the five students had to conduct market research.

“We had to engage in focus groups, and through the groups we had to develop questionnaires, and through the questionnaires we were able to decide on the products that the students want to buy and monitor their needs.

“I was able to gain skills in project management – not just one component but a whole range of skills were incorporated. Those are the types of projects students find really stimulating, where they can acquire skills that are practical and that they can use in their field going forward.”

Mandende believes universities could do more to encourage engagement that students would find relevant.

“To a certain degree it is a two-way street. In one way it is me as an individual, and in another way the university has a role to play in facilitating student engagement.

“If students are not willing, it is difficult for the institution to engage them. The first question a student is going to ask is, what is the benefit? How do I gain? If I’m doing pharmacy and the university is saying I should be involved in a gardening project, how does it help me?

“I think universities should try to structure student engagement projects in such a way that if I’m studying pharmacy, I am able to engage more actively within that field. Students want practical projects that they can relate with their field of study. Students also want practical experience that can help their employability profile,” Mandende argued.

“We have to create a system that activates a hunger to do something, to make a difference. And that difference can best be made if we are building projects that are aligned with students’ fields of study. I think that will create the hunger.”