Students as change agents in the engagement movement

Amanda L. Vogel, Caroline Fichtenberg, Mindi B. Levin

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Since the start of the contemporary engagement movement in higher education, students have made important contributions as leaders and change agents. A number of authors credit students with catalyzing today's engagement movement, through the creation of the Campus Outreach Opportunity League (COOL) in 1984 (Liu, 1996; Zlotkowski, Longo, & Williams, 2006). Multiple publications document the development, in the 1990s, of a national student-driven service movement, which existed within the broader engagement movement, and in which students were participating in "unprecedented numbers" (Levine & Cureton, 1998, p. 39; Liu, 1996; Loeb, 1994). Student founders of that service movement laid the groundwork for the thriving student engagement movement that exists today, by creating a model for student engagement that was sustainable in large part because it was rooted in their generation's politics. Issue-oriented, pragmatic, localized, nonpartisan, and rooted in a desire for social change-the overarching traits of their movement continue to define student engagement today (Levine & Cureton, 1998; Loeb, 1994). Throughout the past twenty-five years, students have also been vocal proponents of the civic responsibilities of higher education. In the 1980s, students led the highly successful national campaign for institutions of higher education to divest from South Africa, which in turn triggered the national divestment movement (Boren, 2001; Loeb, 1994). They also provided outspoken leadership at their colleges and universities to promote gender and race/ ethnic diversity in faculty hiring and retention (Wilson, 1989). In the 1990s and 2000s, students advocated for their higher education institutions to adopt a stance of greater social responsibility through the Living Wage Campaign, United Students Against Sweatshops, and Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (Featherstone, 2002; Harvard Living Wage Campaign, 2002; UAEM, 2008). Despite this history of consistent contributions to the engagement movement, until recently, students' leadership role was not widely recognized (Bastress & Beilenson, 1996; Liu, 1996; Zlotkowski et al., 2006). A number of authors trace this oversight to strategic decisions that were made in the 1990s in order to sustain the movement. National leaders in the movement adopted two main strategies for sustainability. They created resources to support the institutionalization of engagement on campuses nationwide, and they fostered the integration of engagement into the core activities of academia, through service-learning, and more recently, engaged research. These approaches were highly effective, leading to the founding of Campus Compact, the creation of the Learn and Serve America program within the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, the increasing adoption of service-learning and engaged research, and the flowering of a new body of engaged scholarship. But a number of authors have argued that by focusing only on the activities of administrators and faculty, these strategies marginalized students' past contributions to the movement (Bastress & Beilenson, 1996; Liu, 1996; Zlotkowski et al., 2006). In doing so, they also missed an opportunity to capitalize on students' natural role as co-leaders, which was also important to the movement's future. But over the past decade the broader engagement movement has been paying growing attention to students' past, current, and future leadership roles, because of a new awareness that students contribute to the movement in ways that are distinct from faculty and administrators. Leading organizations in the movement, with Campus Compact in the forefront, increasingly are seeing student co-leadership as essential to the next phase of the movement (Cone, Keisa, & Longo, 2006; Long, Saltmarsh, & Heffernan, 2002; Zlotkowski et al., 2006). The Campus Compact-published book, Students as Colleagues: Expanding the Circle of Service-Learning Leadership asserts, "just as the service movement once needed resources that students alone could not supply, so the movement has now reached a point where it needs resources that students alone can supply" (Zlotkowski, et al., 2006; page 3). It argues that student co-leadership can enrich the quality of community engaged learning experiences and ensure continued student interest in service-learning. Similar assertions can be made about the added value of student co-leadership for engaged research and practice. Students as Colleagues includes twenty case studies describing how students nationwide are providing extraordinary co-leadership in service-learning and other forms of engagement on their campuses. The cases also demonstrate widespread support for student co-leadership among faculty and administrators nationally. Recent interest in student co-leadership in the engagement movement is also informed by the dramatic contributions that today's youth are making to civil society. It is widely perceived that the hallmark of the "millenial" generation is civic engagement. Reflecting on the current boom of youth-led social entrepreneurship, a recent New York Times op-ed describes social entrepreneurship as this generation's answer to the youth activism of the 1960s (Kristof, 2008). National news outlets including the Times, CNN, and Newsweek are following the youth civic engagement movement and have featured stories on innovative student-led service projects, engaged research, activism, and social entrepreneurship (CNN, 2008; Ellin, 2001; Foote, 2008; Kuchment, 2008). There has also been noteworthy growth in youth voter participation over the last decade, and this has been credited with contributing to change in the political environment (CIRCLE, 2008; Lopez, Kirby, & Sagoff 2005; Market Watch, 2008). Persons aged 18 to 29 made up a disproportionate 20 percent of the electorate in the Presidential election of 2008, and voted for President Obama over Senator McCain by more than two-to-one, contributing a major part of the winning coalition (CIRCLE, 2008; Market Watch, 2008). They also voted nearly two-to-one for House Democrats (Market Watch, 2008). With regard to the role of students in the engagement movement, two main questions stand out today. First, given the remarkable contribution that the current generation of students is making to civil society, what innovative roles can current and future students play in the engagement movement, particularly if included as co-leaders? Second, in order to fully realize their role as co-leaders, what additional support will students need from the national engagement movement and their local institutions? In this chapter, we offer some answers to these questions. First, we describe three ways in which today's students are contributing unique leadership to push the engagement movement forward in new directions. Then we present a case study of one student organization, with which we were involved as founding members, that is an example of students' leadership in the engagement movement today. This case study highlights the distinct contributions that student leaders can make as compared to faculty, administrators, and staff. It also identifies ways that students can capitalize on their strengths and work around their limitations as contributors to the engagement movement at their institutions; and it provides examples of how faculty and administrative allies can provide critical support for student co-leaders. Based on lessons from the case study, we end this chapter with five key considerations for how to foster effective student co-leadership in the engagement movement in the next decade.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHandbook of Engaged Scholarship
PublisherMichigan State University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)9780870139741
StatePublished - Dec 1 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)

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