Dusk has settled over the campus of Kalamazoo College, and the chandelier lights from the Olmsted Room in Mandelle Hall toss golden rectangles from each window across the red brick pavement outside. Inside, Margee Ensign, president of the American University of Nigeria (AUN) in Yola, Northeast Nigeria, sits quietly in the corner of the room. She is alone, the rows of seats empty now but soon to fill for the keynote speech she will deliver to open the conference, “Civic Engagement and the Liberal Arts: Local Practice, Global Impact.”
Ensign arrived in Kalamazoo just an hour before her talk, “Seeking Refuge from Boko Haram: How a University Responded to a Humanitarian Crisis in Northeast Nigeria.” She’s tired, feeling the jet lag, but as people begin to enter, Ensign perks up.
“Mine is a message of hope,” she says, watching people trickle in, then arrive in ever larger groups. “We are at the beginning of a renaissance, and we need to look at the role of universities as change agents. The United States is now a country divided, and we must work to reunite people. That’s why I am here.”
The Institute on Civic Engagement is the result of collaboration between Kalamazoo College and the Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA). The event’s primary organizers are Alison Geist, director of the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement, and Simon Gray, GLAA program officer in the Great Lakes Colleges Association. For three days participants will discuss their work, their students and their communities, and they’ll explore the role of the liberal arts in public problem solving.
By the time Kalamazoo College President Jorge Gonzalez takes the podium to introduce Margee Ensign, every seat in the room is occupied and more have been added. Twenty-one different colleges and universities are represented here, Gonzalez says, and he welcomes them: from Nigeria, Lebanon, Ghana, France, Pakistan, Egypt, Bulgaria, India, Hong Kong, Greece and many GLCA schools in the United States.
Kalamazoo College’s Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) was established in 2001 with an endowment from Trustee Ronda Stryker and her husband, Bill Johnston, to honor Stryker’s grandmother, Mary Jane Underwood Stryker. More than 8,000 Kalamazoo College students have participated in service-learning courses and student-led community engagement programs since CCE’s founding.
“Liberal arts students learn to cross the boundaries of culture, language, and class,” Gonzalez says. “The only way that our students can achieve this is through community engagement—by crossing the street to engage with the world.”
Ensign continues that message as she takes the podium and addresses her audience. In the world, with the world, with each other, we can change the world, she says, as she tells the story of Boko Haram, Nigeria’s militant Islamist group, and the kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations for which the group has been responsible. She tells about the 276 girls Boko Haram kidnapped in April 2014, and the 58 who escaped. Ensign traveled with a group from AUN to pick up some of these girls, bringing them back to the university, helping them recover from their ordeal and move ahead with their lives. She also talks about the famine in Nigeria and AUN’s actions to help address it.
“At the height of the famine, our students and staff fed 276,000 people—while keeping up with classes,” Ensign says.
Ensign asks: when we think of social change, do we think of universities? Community engagement, she says, leads to social change, and higher education institutions are a natural for that movement, becoming knowledge extension agents.
AUN continues to help those in need. About 150,000 in Yola continue to receive food, and the university has also initiated several programs to help internally displaced persons and the thousands of orphans left behind. AUN also has admitted as students 15 of the kidnapped young women who escaped Boko Haram. Ensign describes AUN programs, such as “Feed & Read,” that provide one meal per day along with lessons in reading for children.
“We have kept 3,000 internally displaced persons alive and fed,” Ensign says. “Universities can be much more powerful change agents than we have realized. We have the advanced technology, the fundraising ability, the grant-writing skills, the resources to make a difference. We have a wealth of knowledge. Community engagement, along with a can-do attitude, is the renaissance of higher education.”
Dawn Michele Whitehead, senior director for Global Learning and Curricular Change at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, agrees. She contends that a liberal arts education is uniquely well positioned for community engagement and social change in her talk, “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Why Your Work is So Critical.”
“A liberal arts education encourages students to consider many different perspectives,” Whitehead says. “We are positioned to be global learners, living in a pluralistic society. Yet a liberal arts education seems to be under attack. Why fund it if it doesn’t have a clear connection to the job market?”
And yet that connection is clear upon closer examination. Whitehead tells of a study conducted with 400 employers. Ninety-six percent of them cited their desire to hire students with experiences solving problems in concert with people whose views differ from their own. A strong majority (78 percent) wants students who have gained intercultural skills and knowledge about societies and countries outside of the United States.
During a discussion on “Civic Engagement in Lebanon: Operating in Mired Grounds,” panelists from the American University of Beirut (AUB) address the pressing needs of 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, more than half of whom are children. AUB took on the sudden and fast-growing need to provide (and to fund) housing, food, education and psychosocial services. Solutions involve creativity and collaboration. The university’s engineering and social work students together have designed unique portable schools and housing. Arts and English students work with refugee children to help them tell stories of disrupted lives through poetry and painting.
The skills learned through service-learning are seemingly endless. One workshop compiles a list: communication, resilience, advocacy, critical thinking, leadership, relationship-building, empathy, networking, informed decision-making, patience, ability to deal with frustration and ambiguity … on and on the list goes, lining the walls of the room.
Alison Geist tries to attend every event, missing only those when she can’t be in two places at once, keeping a close eye on goings-on and checking in on the comfort of participants. In great part, this conference has been carefully and meticulously guided through her hands.
“The seed of the idea came from a previous GLAA meeting held in Hong Kong,” Geist says. “Civic engagement and the liberal arts are key to developing global citizens. By transforming communities, we transform ourselves,” she adds. “Civic engagement is essential in college if we want all of our students to flourish and our precarious world to become more equitable, sustainable and just. We have to learn to do that in our communities with one another.”