Utahns, while famously industrious, have a strong sense of compassion and caring for others. The critical importance of investing in the common good pervades our state. No matter what the issue might be — illiteracy, homelessness, food insecurity, environmental degradation or access to good education and health care, Utahns have a long history of uniting, volunteering and giving time and treasure to help out.
Where does that sense of civic responsibility come from? And, more importantly, what are the most effective ways to foster civic responsibility in younger people who are creating their paths in the world? Certainly kids learn from and mimic their families, teachers and spiritual leaders. Each source can provide guidance about the importance of community and citizenship and how everyone can and should contribute to the betterment of society. The University of Utah commits itself to playing a vital role too. Through its work and activities, the U. serves as a strong “civic engine” for the state and its communities.
While higher education in general, and the U. in particular, has great potential to produce new knowledge, understandings, skilled workers, new technologies and inventions, the U. also produces graduates who are energetic, active and engaged citizens— ideally, citizens who think, speak and act civilly, intentionally, mindfully and compassionately.
Here’s just one example of how that happens: The Bennion Center spends a great deal of time helping professors develop or expand community engaged learning, or CEL, classes. These classes are taught by university faculty who are committed to expanding their students’ knowledge well beyond the classroom. Dr. Adrienne Cachelin is one of those professors. Recently, Cachelin was teaching a course on sustainability and health that focused on how food impacts human health and ecological wellness. With her guidance, two of Cachelin’s students connected with the Glendale-Mountain View Community Learning Center and the Salt Lake City School District. Students Mary McIntyre and Kate Harrington wanted to know why the Glendale area had been designated a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As Cachelin explains it, the students started their inquiry expecting residents to tell them how hard it was to find fresh food. What they ultimately discovered was how these men and women, most of them refugees, learned to use what they had. No running to the store for a missing ingredient. They relied on improvisation, substitution and kitchen creativity. Cooking together in the community center’s kitchen, food became more than a matter of health and nutrition. It was a way of sharing place and identity. It was a connection point for a community comprised of many different cultures.
Mary and Kate completed the assignment and then decided they wanted to go much deeper. They developed a research proposal and sought and received funding from the Bennion Center to help publish “Savor,” a cookbook that shares not only the recipes but the stories of the cooks who submitted them. Both young women graduated from the U. but continued to work on the project for an additional year. “Savor” has since sold more than 600 copies, with all of the profits going back to the Glendale Community Center.
Arienne Cachelin’s community-engaged approach to teaching helped her students do much more than complete an assignment. It created a space for them to write a research proposal, write grant requests, lay the foundation for an academic research paper, negotiate contracts, problem-solve and use digital technologies to photograph and design the cookbook.
Our state needs engaged college graduates who not only thrive in their professions and contribute economically, but also add to our collective civic health and vibrancy. Fostering good citizens requires helping college students make the connections between the content of their courses and the ways in which they can each contribute to strong local economies, social and political well-being and collective action that will solve our most pressing community problems.
Data show that students enrolled in community engaged learning courses report a better appreciation for diversity and ethical decision-making, increased complex problem solving skills, better critical thinking and analytic reasoning, intercultural competence and lifelong habits of service and civic participation. These students enter the workforce with tangible skills that make them valued contributors to their professions and their communities. The University of Utah is proud to be an incubator for this type of civic investment in student learning.
Dean McGovern is the executive director of the Bennion Community Service Center.