Center for Community Engagement

Small Steps, Big Goals: the Student Forum on Community Engagement at Amherst

"Small things that appear small--certainly add up."

Wayne Meisel, president of the Bonner Foundation, is speaking with students of the Bonner Community Engagement Leadership (BCEL) program. The meeting was a preliminary session to the main event of the night, titled "Where are we now? And where are we going?" Attended by Center for Community Engagement staff members, the current BCELs, and approximately 50 students, these participants discussed the culture of community engagement on campus and concrete steps for strengthening that culture in the future. This meeting was a follow-up to a similar two-day brainstorming session in 2008, six months after the Community Outreach center expanded to become the Center for Community Engagement.

Participants talked about how students currently have "awareness" of the issues, but this knowledge did not necessarily translate into "action." Others toyed with the idea of making community service mandatory, but ultimately concluded that a campus forum would aid in gathering a broader range of opinions. Noting that every student has differing interests, one group also discussed alternatives to the "tutoring model" of service; they identified policy research and working with local businesses as uncharted territory open for exploration. Amanda Bass '10 was especially vocal about her desire to "see a culture of activism that goes beyond 'bumper-sticker activism'." Instead, she championed a form of activism that was "woven into your lifestyle" with "no separation between what you do and who you are."

Students who made suggestions also realized that change would take time. Karen Lee, director of student engagement and leadership, told me that these attitudes were normal, even good for the student leader. When new BCELs enter the program, Karen explained, they often have high hopes of their ability to bring about change. Yet once they complete the program, many of them have lower expectations of their ability to make change happen. Intrigued by this result, I asked if this meant students involved in activism were discouraged. Not so. In fact, these students have only realized that inspiring people to action "is very difficult" and their lower expectations come from "learning and understanding the complexity" in community engagement, that "there is a long term plan" involved in addressing issues.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Likewise, long term plans achieve their objective one step at a time. So, perhaps, Mr. Meisel is right--small things certainly add up. Last week's event was a small, but essential, step towards the Center's goal of developing further Amherst College's culture of community engagement. Most importantly, the Center has shown that it doesn't want to do it alone--it wants students to contribute as well. After all, isn't that what community engagement is? Like a popular D.C. drama says, "Decisions are made by those who show up." They are also made by those who speak up as well.

Tracy Huang ’11 is a staff writer for the CCE. She mentors with Big Brothers/Big Sisters and enjoys practicing martial arts.