Q&A with Dan Dougherty, Executive Director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Drexel UniversityBy Felicia D'Ambrosio (Photos by Andrew Reiner) |
“I’m a 19th century guy,” said Dan Dougherty. “I’ll probably die within ten miles of where I was born.” A native of South Jersey educated at St. Joe’s and Temple, Dougherty was appointed Director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Drexel University in 2008, and made Executive Director just a year later. Known for their distinctive co-op ‘experiential learning’ requirement and four ten-week quarters instead of two semesters, Drexel has empowered Dougherty and the Lindy Center to make civic engagement a cornerstone of the Drexel experience.
We spoke with Dan on what constitutes civic engagement, why it’s important, and how learning outside the classroom is more critical than ever.
What is “civic engagement”?
This is the definition I use as shorthand: taking part in the life of the community on issues of public concern. That’s a pretty general definition; there is some consensus in the field, but there are also some competing definitions. The thing that marks civic engagement is being engaged publicly, on issues that speak to the public good. The way people take part in the spectrum of civic engagement is through philanthropy and volunteerism, political activism, and electoral politics.
In a higher education institution, we engage through community-based research projects and coursework. Drexel has a long tradition of experiential learning; we distinguish ourselves with the community-based problem solving in the work we do.
How does Drexel provide this community-based experiential learning?
Co-op is Drexel’s most widely known form of experiential learning. Somewhere in the realm of 95 percent of Drexel students take part in co-op; it’s a very big reason students choose Drexel. There are also elements of civic engagement in study abroad, and undergraduate research projects — these are experiences that take place outside of the classroom.
A 2011 study by the National Assessment of Educational Programs found that a third of high school seniors lack a basic grasp of how government works. Since civics were largely dropped from American curricula by the 1980s, how do you address this gap with your students?
Civic engagement is not just how government works, but what it means to be an active part of your community. The notion of citizenship is just one of four priorities to create responsible citizens. It overlaps with the study of government, which is not just how a bill become a law — and politics is not that, either.
Politics and government are not the same thing. Government is the formal mechanism, but civic education is more broadly defined. One point I would make to your observation is that things like civics and government tend to be an area that schools cut or don’t focus on, so the challenge Drexel has is to communicate with students who haven’t thought about the notion of citizenship since the sixth grade, or ever.
How have these programs evolved since you came on as Executive Director?
Since 1998 we’ve required University 101, a freshman orientation worth 2 credits, taken over 2 terms — we have four ten-week quarters over the year. Most recently, we at the Lindy Center were out to redesign this program. As part of 101, everyone had to do a civic engagement project — these were run in a decentralized way by the different colleges, each with different standards.
We were asked by the provost to design a first-year course: Introduction to Civic Engagement, to be held over a two-year period and expanded to include every undergraduate student in their first year. We also have a very new minor in CE, and an 18 credit certificate that students can elect to pursue.
Other courses offered by individual faculty across the university have community-based orientation; we are trying to create a framework though which, across 4 or 5 years at Drexel, will help students achieve their learning goals through a deeper experience.
You mentioned that University 101 was run in a decentralized way. Is that common in the university setting?
Higher education is very based on individual colleges and schools, and deans run their colleges, and faculty members run their departments. As a model, higher education is very decentralized, so I don’t think Drexel is unique in that way. People use the phrase ‘siloed,’ meaning we don’t communicate with other colleges. One university plan is trying to get over some of the ways in which we are siloed: our form of governance needs to be a combination between decentralized autonomy, so people have freedom to be innovative and entrepreneurial.
It’s like the idea of federalism: the federal government has certain responsibilities, the state government has certain responsibilities. The trick is to define where they overlap, and who is responsible.
Do you believe co-op and experiential learning techniques give Drexel graduates an edge in our dismal economic climate?
In work that students can do through CE projects, they are faced with challenges they don’t get in the work world or class; some challenges they have to address right away. Interpersonal skills, critical thinking to make a quick decision — students become empowered through that. A big thing we focus on is a sense of self-efficacy, the notion that what you do matters. When they go out and take part in a project, they are able to see the direct results of what they do. A research project has applied elements, but in direct service you are interacting with people. If everything works out the way we hope, students see that they have taken advantage of an opportunity they might not have had otherwise, and overcome challenges they face, and realize what they do matters.
It’s not possible to educate everybody in everything — there is limitless knowledge out there — but even if you don’t know to do something, you can have confidence that you can figure it out. CE activation really helps students do that.
In my experience, many students don’t come from cities, and Drexel is clearly an urban university, so it gives kids a chance to experience the city firsthand. It’s important to expand the students’ sense of the world, and of themselves. There is an inherent sense of learning through diversity through CE; it’s very important, and a part of the changing world that we live in.
We can’t be parochial about how we interact anymore, and understand all the different experiences out there. Locally, globally, we have to span our opportunities for interaction. That will help the Drexel student who came here for co-op in their education, whether they want to go out and create their own clothing line, or be an accountant, they are going to have to interact with a larger and larger circle of people who are different from themselves in the global economy.
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