The Case for Civic Engagment

by Katie Prisco-Buxbaum / Beacon Staff • September 27, 2012

When it comes to putting passion into practice, film students head to their sets, broadcast journalists have their studios, and theater majors take the stage. However, when it comes to the future social advocates, politicians, and non-profit entrepreneurs, Emerson doesn’t quite offer the “hands-on” experience that it boasts. 

Despite the full title of the major—political communication: politics, leadership, and social advocacy—there are few aspects that foster professional development in the non-profit sector. In the political communication classes that I have been enrolled, we cover everything from political theory to the management skills necessary for good leadership, but rarely address the skills needed for non-profit building or issue-based advocacy. Emerson should adopt a civic engagement certification to give these students the experience that they need to excel in their field.

As a current participant at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars a Washington, D.C. study abroad program funded by private donors and partnered with 130 colleges and universities from 47 states and 14 countries including Emerson, I must complete a multi-faceted civic engagement requirement with an emphasis in education, advocacy, and service. 

The program, which also includes seminar classes and facilitates a full-time internship, includes this mandatory aspect as a part of its mission to supply young professionals with an experience that will transform them as both people and professionals

For example, I am doing my project on the issue of domestic violence. The requirement entails lectures with the National Network to End Domestic Violence, lobbying my representatives in the Senate to pass the Violence Against Women Act, volunteering with Becky’s Fund —a domestic violence non-profit — and a research report on the issue within my state or  on my campus. 

Although service takes  time and effort, it is imperative that every Emerson student in the political communication major gets the experience that a civic engagement requirement supplies. It teaches humility, allows students to get outside of the “Emerson bubble” to connect with people from different walks of life, and helps them better realize how the policies and theories we learn about in class translate to the real world. Those looking into political and managerial careers can gain valuable skills from service and the challenge it presents to their professional life, while also teaching aspiring advocates to efficiently organize a service event or vouch for a social issue.

Senior political communication major  Hena Rizvi is studying with The Washington Center’s Advocacy, Service, and Arts program and working as a site coordinator with For Love of Children, a neighborhood tutoring program for low-income families. Rizvi, who plans to work in the non-profit sector, said that the skills she has gained through public service—such as people-skills, multi-tasking, planning, and research — make her more equipped for her desired field. 

Rizvi, who changed to the political communication major, said it was a call to service that inspired her to pursue a professional path that involved social change. 

“I love thinking about [change] and dreaming about how I want the world to be, but I realized that you actually need to take initiative for things to happen,”  said Rizvi, who was originally a writing, literature, and publishing major. 

It is students like Rizvi who are being failed by the current curriculum. For those who seek to incite change from a service-based level, the degree only helps in title, without supplying them with the proper skill sets, opportunities, and hands-on experiences. 

I believe that a requirement modeled after the civic engagement certification at Wesleyan University would best fit the program. The proposed requirement would charge students with  completing mandatory courses, a portfolio, a minimum of 40 volunteer hours, and a volunteer internship in the field of service. 

Richard West—president of the National Communication Association, a global organization of 8,000 communication professionals, and the internship coordinator for the communications studies department —  has a simple remedy for students who don’t believe they have time to volunteer: get a time management expert and see how much of your daily schedule is wasted time, so you can put it toward better use. 

Despite the facetious nature of this comment, it supplies a valid point. However busy you think you are, it is narrow-minded to believe that someone who wants to become a leader in the community, nation, or the world does not have the innate responsibility to want to change things for the better. Without this requirement, students get a degree in leadership without truly learning to be one: Good leaders serve their community and inspire others to do the same.