We see civic engagement as being a completely reciprocal endeavor. While you’re working in the community to make a positive difference, you are gaining skills, knowledge and connection to others. In Noncredit ESL, we’ve created a program for our immigrant students called Garfield Service Learning, which clearly exemplifies the reciprocity of civic engagement.
Garfield Service Learning students, all upper-level ESL learners, volunteer with a variety of nonprofit organizations to help the environment, people with disabilities, children learning English, people experiencing homelessness, animals in need, and more. As students offer their time, skills, and compassion to others, they gain language experience, cultural awareness, and connection to their new community. This connection helps combat the isolation that many immigrants feel in a new country, and volunteering is a proactive step that helps create a sense of belonging and feeling “at home.”
All too often, GCC’s Noncredit ESL students, adult immigrants from Armenia, Syria, Iran, Mexico, Korea, Iraq, and many other countries, feel disconnected from the English-speaking community at large. Lacking confidence in their English skills, they are at risk of segregating themselves into linguistic enclaves and thus disconnecting from their adopted country to an even greater extent.
There is the obvious barrier of language for our ESL students, but the deeper challenge is cultural. Many of our students want to be active members in their new community, but they don’t know where or how to begin. Most of them would be too nervous, for example, to look online for a nonprofit organization, place a cold call to that organization, and then offer to volunteer on their own. Garfield Service Learning provides important support through a faculty coordinator who contacts organizations, helps students select small-group service work, sets up service events, and often volunteers side-by-side with the students.
Once students, with the help of the faculty coordinator and their fellow volunteers, get beyond their initial fears, they are unstoppable! In the first semester alone, 27 Noncredit ESL students volunteered a total of more than 325 hours. As they gain confidence, students start taking on leadership positions within Garfield Service Learning, volunteering on their own, and seeking new service opportunities.
By continuing and expanding our service learning program, we have been able to reach out to many of our students in Noncredit ESL and give them the opportunity to experience the power and joy of civic engagement in a very proactive and substantial way.
Having the college choose civic engagement as a theme is important because it highlights some of the central goals of a community college education: improving the community through knowledge, understanding, and action. This theme truly encompasses the culmination what we do here.
We know that many in the GCC community are already actively involved in a variety of civic-oriented projects. The fact that we have all decided to teach, work, and/or study at a community college demonstrates a commitment to making the world a better place.
For those who have not experienced the joy of volunteering, we would like to emphasize how much can be gained, and not just given, through civic engagement. Beyond the knowledge, skills, and connection to others that are gained, there is a great satisfaction that comes from being a contributing member of a larger group. Civic engagement is more than just the sense of belonging; it’s also the awareness that you have a creative role in the formation and direction of your own community.