IV. Learning Beyond the Amherst Classroom

4.2 Civic Engagement

Our students’ engagement with ideas, as they think through pressing issues and ethical dilemmas, is vitally informed by experiences outside of the College, through both public service and courses with a community-based learning component.

By providing well-organized public-service opportunities, the College demonstrates the sort of engagement we seek to inculcate in our students. Indeed, Amherst has an obligation to work for the good of our surrounding communities and to model and foster students’ sense of civic obligation. The ability of the numerous cultures within the student body to cohere and learn from each other relies on encounters with cultures beyond the campus.

In some cases the College may enter into reciprocal partnerships with local organizations that will provide training and substantive service opportunities. For instance, service within the public schools can bring a deeper and more realistic grasp of the politics, economics, sociology, anthropology, and history of public education and add substance to the debates about these topics on campus and beyond. Much the same holds for environmental studies, human rights, and other emerging subjects of inquiry.

Because of the limits of geography and time during semesters, our students may also seek such experiences elsewhere during the summer and January. We believe that the current and growing demand for these types of meaningful internships should be met with increased funding, so as to ensure opportunities beyond organizations that can pay salaries and to ensure access to internships among students who may not have connections or who cannot afford to volunteer. The aim should be to ensure internships are available for all students, or at least all students who also engage in related service activities.

We also note that the alumni have been a crucial network for internships and for insight based on a lifetime of work. We hope that they can be inspired to increase their interactions with the campus community, for instance through electronic networks, by hosting Amherst interns in their workplaces or community organizations, and through increased interterm programs that bring together alumni, faculty, students, and visitors with common interests and productively divergent views.

A purposeful combination of all these efforts can engage our students in thinking critically about pressing contemporary issues. Their encounters with varied viewpoints and disparate life chances can stimulate the moral reckoning that we aim to nurture.

14. We recommend significantly expanding opportunities for community service and for summer and January internships.

Amherst has done too little to connect public-service experience with the curriculum, despite both a distinguished tradition of producing social entrepreneurs and the current high level of participation – about a third of the student body. Students who participate in such programs should have opportunities to prepare intellectually and reflect on the implications of their involvement, as well as to examine scholarship that takes aspects of such engagement as its point of departure. The few courses with a dimension of community engagement have been received by our students as energizing and valuable. We encourage the faculty to develop more courses that allow students to integrate their observations and experiences in the communities they serve into a larger analytical framework (e.g., in the context of public education, the environment, or the legal system). We concur with the Experiential Education Working Group that leadership in developing such courses should come from within the faculty, as can be made possible by relieving an experienced colleague of two courses a year through a half-time visiting appointment (not reckoned in the FTE count). We expect that community-based learning will be an important component of courses proposed under Interdisciplinary Initiatives (Section III).

15. We recommend that a visiting appointment be made to allow a faculty member to serve half-time as coordinator of community-based learning.

Both public service and community-based learning rely on the complex and time-consuming process of maintaining reciprocal partnerships that work to the benefit both of the community organizations and the College. At Amherst that responsibility falls to a handful of faculty and to the understaffed Office of Community Outreach. Although the Five Colleges have implemented some programs, their staffing cannot meet the level of student interest or maintain effective partnerships. Therefore, we urge that more staff and financial support be provided to support both public-service efforts and faculty interested in pursuing community-based learning and that consideration be given to bringing all such support under a single administrative structure.

We commend the College’s current efforts to secure significant additional funding for the expansion and coordination of such efforts and hope that these partnerships can inspire peer institutions to do more of the same.