Over the past 30 years, the cost of higher education has increased significantly faster than inflation. Has the rise in tuition better prepared students, not only for their careers but also for their roles as civic-minded community members? Amherst College(Massachusetts), an institution that has received attention for expanding opportunities in higher education, has also been emphasizing student engagement in the community through community service and experiential learning.

Argosy has been working with Amherst to provide more experiential learning experiences for students. In 2002, the Foundation began providing funds for Amherst students to participate in paid summer and winter internships, linking education with hands-on experience and community service. This funding provides travel to internship sites and stipends for students who meet program eligibility guidelines. The stipends permit all qualified students, including those whose financial situation does not allow them to accept traditional unpaid internships, to participate in the program.

Argosy Trustees were impressed with the impact of the internships and decided to further expand Amherst’s community service and experiential learning opportunities. In 2006, Argosy and Amherst partnered to extend the public internship program and to build a Center for Community Engagement, an on-campus hub for curriculum development, student and faculty workshops, special events, and other collaborations between Amherst and community-based partner organizations. The new partnership includes a seven-year grant that, when the Center officially opens in fall 2007, will integrate classroom learning and practical experience on an even deeper level.

Tackling the root of the problem

Argosy Trustees wanted Amherst students to gain firsthand experience with the issues they study in the classroom. Instead of working at a wholly theoretical level, Amherst students concerned about the gap between public and private education might find themselves tutoring at-risk middle schoolers in the Amherst County Public School District. Interns who want to help the homeless might become part of a Habitat for Humanity team, building homes for low-income individuals and families. Through reflection and papers, their experiences would be integrated with their classroom learning.

Experiences such as these allow students to become more actively involved in their communities. The basic idea, and there is empirical evidence supporting this, is that combining community service with classroom learning improves both. The hope is that one day, students may find ways to lessen the problems facing these communities because of their community experiences at Amherst.

Long-term plans

In the coming years, Argosy and Amherst will continue to expand the Center for Community Engagement, establishing more partnerships with local and national organizations and increasing faculty and student involvement. Beginning this fall, Molly Mead, professor of urban studies and founding director of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, will serve as the Center’s first director, a post made possible by the partnership with Argosy.

At Tufts, Molly aimed to make every graduate an active, effective member of society. She’ll be working toward the same goal at Amherst, connecting the extensive community service students are already engaged in with academic learning across the curriculum. “Amherst is an educational institution focused on excellent teaching and academics,” she says. “We’re asking what it can do in the area of community engagement and how it can be a role model for universities across the country.”

Beginning this fall, Molly plans to form a student leadership team to help guide the direction of the new Center. In addition to this team, she hopes to engage “as broad a constituency as possible,” including other students, faculty, staff, and community members, in shaping service learning programs.

Argosy Trustees believe that longer-term grants are sometimes necessary to effectively implement a program in a sustainable way. Over the partnership’s seven-year term, Argosy and Amherst will evaluate the internships’ effects on students to determine the program’s successes and shortcomings. As they learn along the way, both organizations will seek to make the Center stronger each year.

The Center for Community Engagement is still in its first stages, but the public service internships are already providing students with the resources to take on leadership roles—roles that encourage them to make a difference in their communities and in the world. Integrated with academic learning, these internships stand to have an even greater effect on the lives of the participants and those around them.

"In partnership with the Argosy Foundation, we are strengthening the culture of service across our campus, building new partnerships with service organizations, and are working to develop a new model for community engagement in higher education,” says Amherst College President Anthony Marx. “Thanks to the integrated set of Argosy-sponsored programs—from internships to panel discussions, training sessions and support for curriculum development—more Amherst students are getting involved and are finding myriad ways to continue that service after graduation. We look forward to further enhancing this vital work when the Center for Community Engagement officially opens this fall.”

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