Civically engaged students should tackle practical local problems before addressing the nuanced global issues that tend to paralyze society, according to Daniel Ponsetto.
“It’s really important to think very practically, and very locally, and ask yourself the question, ‘What can I do that’s realistic?’ Instead of ‘What can’t I do?’” said Ponsetto, the Welles R. Crowther Director for the Volunteer and Service Learning Center at Boston College.
Started by BC’s Division of Student Affairs six years ago, the Civic Engagement Initiative (CEI) primarily focuses on encouraging student engagement in elections and promoting civic engagement on campus, Ponsetto said.
“What do we mean by civic engagement?” Ponsetto said. “And why is it important? And what are the types of and how do we think about it? [What do] students think civic engagement is and how do they prioritize it or practice that already?”
This fall, the CEI shifted from a strictly Student Affairs–run operation to a collaboration with other offices and departments across BC’s campus, according to Kyle Neary.
“Our hope is to help students see voting and political participation as just one way [students] can serve in their community,” said Neary, interim associate director for student organizations and programs.
The transition comes after Vice President for Student Affairs Shawna Cooper Whitehead became interested in moving the initiative to a University-wide committee with divisions throughout campus, according to Women’s Center Director Katie Dalton.
“I think [the CEI was] just trying to get more faculty and administrators from outside of Student Affairs, to bring a perspective from the classroom or say, from my experience, say with service engagement and so forth,” Ponsetto said.
According to Dalton, the initiative is now divided into three teams—the Assessment and Evaluation Committee, the Resource Hub Committee, and the Information Campaign Team Committee.
The Assessment and Evaluation committee promotes understanding civic engagement on campus, according to Dalton.
“[It’s] basically trying to understand how students define civic engagement and how they participate in their communities as active citizens,” Dalton said.
The Resource Hub Committee focuses on connecting the student body to civic engagement events happening around campus, while the Information Campaign Team Committee concentrates on telling the stories of community members who serve as active citizens, according to Dalton.
“We are working with a student, Destiny Chimilio, to produce videos to explain what civic engagement is, why it’s important, [and] ways that members of the community serve as active citizens,” Dalton said.
According to a University release, the CEI participates in a study led by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University, which showed the overall voting rate at BC has increased in recent election cycles. The overall voting rate increased from 15.9 percent in 2014 to 37.4 percent in 2018 to 72.2 percent in 2020, the release reads.
Dalton and Ponsetto said that to many of the CEI co-chairs, civic engagement goes beyond voting and volunteering. The goal of the CEI’s restructuring is to help students make strong community and local impacts.
“We have a culture of volunteerism on campus and I see it as [the CEI’s] role to connect that to civic engagement and to help students understand that the work they are doing domestically or even internationally can and should have an impact on how they interact and engage with their community on the most local level,” Dalton said.
Ponsetto said getting involved on campus is great practice for creating a pattern of civic engagement beyond college.
“[Students] may be more likely to when they find themselves off campus and living in a community [and] be more prepared to step up and simply volunteer their time working on behalf of the common good in their city or town,” Ponsetto said.