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The Ideal Engaged Citizen?


ideal citizenJake Grohs is an Assistant Director in Virginia Tech’s Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships.   In this role, he coordinates the Students Engaging and Responding through Volunteer Experiences (SERVE) living-learning community and supports co-curricular engagement efforts throughout the university.  Jake also enjoys involvement in the local community through the YMCA at Virginia Tech and the Community Foundation for the New River Valley. He lives in the beautiful New River Valley of Virginia with his wife, Courtney, two large dogs, Grady and Kiwi, and the perpetual-renovation project of a tiny, old, home.

Sometimes the fork in the road also serves as a necessary slap in the face.  I distinctly remember that feeling as I took stock of myself in the Fall of 2008.  There I was—an over-caffeinated Master’s student in Engineering Mechanics at Virginia Tech, dutifully working on my thesis in preparation for a May 2009 graduation.  Decent grades. A four-year veteran on a project sponsored by General Motors.  Supportive advisors happy to recommend me to potential employers.  I also had never visited a career fair, never pursued a co-op or internship, and had taken no initiative in looking for any sort of engineering positions with anyone, anywhere.  You could call it procrastination or lack of drive… but I see it as a near-terminal case of why-do-I-do-service?-itis.

For the better part of my engineering education, I secreted away hours to volunteer with the campus YMCA and stole my summers as a live-in camp counselor or a volunteer intern with Community Service Alliance in the Dominican Republic.  It wasn’t so much that I didn’t feel connected in my engineering discipline – I worked with wonderfully smart and caring teachers and researchers.  But, no matter where I looked, I never felt as “at home” or “alive” as I did while wearing any sort of “volunteer” hat or working in a more “public service” setting.

The False Fork in the Road
Even in a relatively short tenure with Virginia Tech’s Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships (since May 2009), I have already seen highly engaged, incredibly talented students struggle with the same fork in the road at graduation as I experienced.  The situation can quickly become dangerously over-dramatized and incorrectly characterized as friend vs. foe – a choice between a vow of poverty and selling one’s soul to the “system,” vocation versus just-a-job, a quest for fulfillment versus the “rat-race,” even right versus wrong.   This fork is a very scary yet intensely real issue for the students of educators who strongly advocate for civic engagement.  You may have had the same gut reaction in reading this as I did in writing it.  I quickly want to advocate for meaningful curricular service-learning as a tool towards putting academic knowledge and skills to use for the common good, or point out some socially conscious and philanthropic businesses, or discuss professional involvement with governing boards of nonprofits and civic group membership…  But, in suppressing the initial urge to cite my way out of this issue, I find myself looking forward to whatever that end goal is for integrating meaningful service in the lives of our students.  What does an “engaged” campus look like?  An “engaged” community? That student-turned-professional who is living out all of that civic and social responsibility that they honed throughout their curricular and co-curricular community engagement – that ideal engaged citizen?

ideal citizenLet me sidestep the can of worms I just opened.  We could talk abstractly about utopian society or narrow-in on concrete measurable student learning outcomes to measure and assess.  However, let me offer an anecdotal answer without too much justification just for the sake of conversation.  I believe our end-goal looks so different for each individual that it becomes really difficult to measure.  And, I believe that it is less linked to a student’s ability to tangibly couple her/his academic and civic pursuits than it is in discovering the fundamental “why” behind personal motivations for service.

In truth, my civic engagement pursuits and my engineering work remained pretty distinct worlds.  Yet, I don’t feel like the fork-in-the-road aha moment I was experiencing was because I couldn’t see how the two could overlap.  I was aware of engineering firms that do socially conscious work.  I knew about profession specific civic groups such as Engineers Without Borders, how to plug into non-profit boards, and how to find a local Rotary, Lions, or Kiwanis Club.  It wasn’t access to resources or feeling like I couldn’t be an engineer who did “good” work.  The missing piece for me was this “feeling alive.”  Why did I feel so engaged, happy, and fulfilled in these other settings? What was it about “service” that kept me coming back time and time again?  Part of it seems to be about recognizing interconnectedness with others… but it also seems there might be something else…?


Processing the Service Warm-and-Fuzzies
Just as we should encourage students and one another to connect service and outreach to education on broader social issues, so too should we pursue the sometimes-elusive “why” behind the service.  I don’t just mean good ole’ reflection as a critical concept in service learning. Outcomes such as increased sense of belonging to a community, heightened sense of human interconnectedness, opportunity for multi-cultural awareness, and others are all well documented in scholarly literature as some of the benefits of service-learning with solid reflection components.  It’s not that these goals aren’t enough… but they also aren’t all-inclusive.  I’m advocating an even deeper dig through the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from “helping” into some of the less tangible “personal growth” or “self-learning” kinds of outcomes.   It is in this journey that I think we begin to see real interesting connections between community engagement/service-learning and Donald Clifton’s Strengths-Based Psychology popular in both the business world and student affairs in higher education.   What if fully unpacking and reflecting on one’s service experiences isn’t just about me being able to rattle off some things I learned about myself, but rather, a massive scavenger-hunt-road-map to a deeply personal definition of the engaged citizen?

ideal citizenWhen I began to really deeply reflect on my different engagement work throughout undergraduate and graduate work, I started to see some common themes emerge.  Those times I felt most alive seemed to be characterized by deep mentorship relationships or conversations about personal growth and leadership development.  I began to understand what was so rejuvenating about being a Resident Advisor and listening to a resident share an unfolding realization of personal passions.  I suddenly could see why leading group reflection among peers on an international service immersion trip was so invigorating.  I even came to new insights on why time in the engineering lab mentoring undergraduate researchers was always more productive and fulfilling than running tests and analyzing data all alone.  All these nuances had previously been lumped into phrases like “I do service because I enjoy helping others.” Or, “I do service because it is the right thing to do.”  There is nothing wrong with this itself… but it was short of the transformative aha moment that was awaiting me.  Being an engaged citizen suddenly made sense.  For Jake Grohs, it wasn’t a never-ending pursuit to embody all of who Ghandi was.  It wasn’t joining the Peace Corps or even moving to a community in the Dominican Republic where I had already done some work and developed strong relationships.  It wasn’t working with a local non-profit.  Suddenly, there was no fork in the road… just a single, windy, sometimes obscured path to becoming more and more Jake every day.  This phase of that journey sees me seeking out different opportunities (such as working for VT’s Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships) to use my strengths and interests in a way that ultimately seeks to better my own life, the students and communities I work with, and the world in which we live.

What Now? for the Fellow Practitioner?
So, as we are hard at work igniting ourselves, our co-workers, and our students to become engaged in their work, serve others, and process that all-important-learning, how can we prepared for those paralyzing fork-in-the-road moments?

Author and theologian Harold Thurman is quoted as saying, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  I find this quote and the essential question it references to be the foundation for all personal reflection into service.  I try to ask it in as many ways as possible because I believe it is the legend for that engaged citizen/utopian community roadmap.   Let us not shy away from those difficult conversations with co-workers, students, and ourselves that dig to the “why” behind the work. Engagement often is an opportunity for us all to become passionate about a particular issue in our world – hunger, education, homelessness, or others.  However, our communities don’t just need passionate people ready to tackle issues.  We need passionate people with a deep understanding of self in the context of the community. The ideal engaged citizenry doesn’t just resemble wonderful leaders like Ghandi or Mother Theresa, but rather a beautiful sea of individuals seeking an understanding of both self and community with a deep commitment to personal and collective change-seeking action.

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