Civic Engagement + Millennials = IMPACT

Why is civic engagement critical for college students?

By Susan Badger Booth, Campus Executive Director, Nonprofit Leadership Alliance @ EMU

By Susan Badger Booth, Campus Executive Director, Nonprofit Leadership Alliance @ EMU

95 million Americans fall into the category of the millennial generation roughly between the ages of 16 and 36. Of this group an impressive 61% have, are or will attend college. My work with current Eastern Michigan University students has left me impressed with their ability to see beyond individual interests and look to broader issues of public good. Although often engaged civically, these students seem to connect to issues rather than institutions. They often chose to curate their own programs to address these issues by pulling together like-minded peers, often through social media, rather than looking for existing programs to join. I enjoy introducing my students to nonprofit organizations that have created programs to address the issues they care deeply about, but I also appreciate the ingenuity and creativity they bring to addressing these issues on their own.

It is fascinating that although students regularly design new ways to engage civically, millennials are easily outpacing the baby boomers in more traditional civic engagement activities as well. These include both volunteerism and voting power. In fact this fall the millennial voting block influence will equal that of the baby boomers. The Millennial Civic Health Index (2013), produced by the National Conference on Citizenship, reports on the diverse ways millennials are becoming civically engaged.  The report directly connects a college education to civic engagement - noting that degreed millennials are 5 more times likely to act on community issues than peers without a degree.  Equally impressive is the diversity of issues that resonate with these students.  Common themes seem to be equity in college tuition, LGBTQ issues, environmental sustainability, bullying (especially online), hunger and homelessness. Many of these issues my students have experienced firsthand.

I regularly see these engagement statistics play out in tangible ways with my students.  This semester I taught a class in Arts Advocacy.  We began with campus meetings and learned about legislative voting records on arts issues, arts policy and how federal arts funding affects local cultural organizations.  Then on a cold morning in early March we piled into a motor coach and traveled to Washington, D.C., for the annual Arts Advocacy Conference sponsored by Americans for the Arts.  Students spent the next day with arts advocates from all over the country reviewing policy issues and discussing strategies to talk with legislators.  The next day students put all this preparation to the test in advocacy meetings with legislators on Capitol Hill. 

As we traveled home that night, the energy on the bus was electric.  Students expressed pride in themselves and each other as they debriefed on the legislative meetings.  One student noted “the passion that everyone has for the arts really created an incredible sense of confidence.”  We worked on taking that passion and turning it into clear messages while on the bus ride to the conference.  Students crafted how they would introduce themselves at the conference.   Another student remarked, “Michigan had the second largest delegation at the conference.”  This was because of the 23 students attending from Eastern.  Students swapped stories about meeting with Congresswoman Dingle, Senators Stabenow and Peters, and Congressmen Amash and Walberg.  After returning to campus, the class met again and made plans for local arts advocacy events for the fall.  These included hosting an arts platform summit before the November elections, an arts advocacy day in Lansing and a peer-to-peer advocacy-training program at other regional universities.

Some foundational social issue inspires most projects my students develop.  These include an empty bowls project to support our campus food pantry, a coffee house raising funds for Mobile Meals and a master’s project where artists’ creative work focused on teaching audiences about global climate change.  Next winter students are planning an art event to promote access to mental health services in those dark winter months.

Tangible impact is a goal of any social change agent including college students.  Millennials more than others, maybe? Or, are these students looking for bigger change? Do they want to change the systems that we all work within? Students look for the agency to act on these issues. We in higher education need to help open doors to knowledge and resources so students can effect change by their own design. College is certainly about preparing students for careers, but college must also enable students to find their voice, and explore beliefs and passions.  Listening to the issues that are important to them is critical to this engagement.

The question may not be “Why is civic engagement critical for college students?”  The question may be how can we as educators make sure students have the authority to take action on our campuses and in our communities.  I am confident we all will benefit from their engagement.

Susan Badger Booth is also a professor and program director of the Arts Management & Administration Programs at EMU.  Booth connects university resources to area cultural and nonprofit leaders and organizations with her research including the Washtenaw County Master Cultural Plan (2008) and her current work mapping arts based programming in the Ypsilanti Community Schools.

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