Engaged students – Learning skills, changing lives

“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,” says Professor Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo.

“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.”

Anderson, who is 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 satisfaction of seeing what you do make a difference more than compensates 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!”

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 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.”

There were two trends supporting greater student engagement, said Todd Langton, chair of the board of the MacJannet Foundation, which partners with the Talloires Network to provide annual prizes for world-class student engagement initiatives.

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, a final year student at the National Law School of India University and current student leader of its award-winning Legal Services Clinic – which provides legal services for free to the poor – described the question of leadership qualities as “primary”.

“Leadership quality comes with the power to make a decision,” he told University World News.

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.”


Looking at student engagement initiatives down the years, there were a number of stand-out messages, said Todd Langton. 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.”

Periodically, MacJannet and the Talloires Network gather prize-winners in one place so that they can learn from each other. “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.