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Fostering Global Citizenship and Leadership Through the Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts

 

The Global Imperative for Higher Education
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2014
University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

 

Ellen Navarro, Wagner College
Patricia Tooker, Wagner College

Wagner College is a private co-educational liberal arts college, located on Staten Island, that began over one hundred years ago in 1883, in Rochester, N.Y. Wagner relocated to Staten Island in 1918, bringing about a new era in the history of the college. It became well known for its liberal arts curriculum and, as a result, enrollment increased. Over the next three decades, Wagner embarked on an aggressive building campaign to keep pace with the growth of its academic reputation and enrollment. Today, over 2000 students in more than thirty academic programs and five graduate departments make up the Wagner College community. We prepare students for life, as well as for careers, by emphasizing scholarship, achievement, leadership, and citizenship. Wagner offers a comprehensive educational program that is anchored in the liberal arts, experiential and co-curricular learning, interculturalism, interdisciplinary studies and service to society.

In 1997, Wagner College embarked upon an ambitious transformation of the academic program, the very core of the college. Driven by leaders in the faculty and administration, Wagner reshaped its future, as the Board of Trustees approved the creation of The Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts. It was the first step in the re-conceptualization of Wagner’s role in higher education and its responsibility to educate its students. Through this plan, Wagner College gives its students the unique opportunity to link experiential learning to academic courses. By virtue of its location in New York City, Wagner College is able to involve its students in the social, scientific, and professional domains of one of the premier cities of the nation.

Students’ experiential learning is directly linked to their Learning Community (LC), its themes, and to the readings and the discussions of these courses. The LC provides the academic context for experiences in the community by linking courses across the disciplines. The basic theory of experiential learning is anchored in the work of John Dewey: the interaction of knowledge and skills with experience is key to learning. Students learn best not by reading the Great Books in a closed room, but also by opening the doors and windows of experience. The experiential learning process is a teaching methodology that uses meaningful practical experience to enhance student understanding of course content and the learning of abstract concepts. Through direct involvement with people and issues, students learn to apply their knowledge to real life situations. Through community-based experience, students learn about different social and professional cultures by working directly within these communities. As active participants, students will also share their knowledge, ideas and perspectives with members of the onsite community and their classmates.

Since 1998 Wagner College faculty and students have been connected to many communities throughout New York City in ways that have enriched both the College and the community. The Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts continued to incorporate experiential learning into first-year and senior learning communities, so much so that every student was immersed in learning off campus at least twice in their four years. In 2006, that involvement grew more intentional, deep, and sustainable, especially within the Staten Island community. At that time a grant from the Corporation for Public Service (Learn and Serve America) enabled academic departments to make ongoing connections with specific community partner agencies, such as public schools, healthcare organizations, faith-based programs, and social service organizations. Faculty members modified or created mid-level courses for students to engage in experiential learning, and in working consistently with selected agencies faculty were able to identify larger, more complex projects that students could undertake. Faculty members from various disciplines also were able to thread experiential learning outcomes throughout their departments’ curricula.

The Civic Innovations Model coordinated services and also provided a means for community-based organizations to share resources and collaborate. The faculty and their students worked in a variety of community settings by providing direct services as well as supportive services for agencies, and by conducting community-based research and disseminating information. The main two components of this model were curricular and intentional community outreach. This model sought to utilize community-based learning experiences as a means to help students develop skills to be effective actors in civic affairs, while also providing Wagner students with experiences that would inspire them to be life-long community participants and potential leaders.

The Civic Innovations Model was the turning point for our efforts with community outreach. It encouraged collaboration between the faculty and community stakeholders, channeled students to appropriate agencies, and provided opportunities for civic engagement to the general public. The majority of students reported feeling more comfortable in diverse communities and a stronger sense of personal responsibility. Community members felt a stronger link to the college and provided ongoing opportunities that supported their initiatives and student learning. This program served as a path to new ways of empowering individuals and mobilizing their capacities. It became evident that a group of citizens were working together on more purposeful initiatives. In 2009, Wagner College and twelve community partners officially established The Port Richmond Partnership in order to continue the process of fusing the efforts of faculty and students with community partners in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Staten Island. This collaboration linked the College’s teaching and learning outcomes with efforts related to the needs of the community. As the needs of partners have increased, so too has the interest among our faculty and students to remain engaged in activities that promote learning with a greater sense of personal and social responsibility. This vibrant collaboration among schools, businesses and community organizations is Wagner’s most recent example of its commitment to civic engagement and leadership and its commitment to collaborative action across multicultural contexts within The Wagner Plan and the Diversity of New York City.

College has some stake in developing the internal landscape of student lives. The Wagner student population, which includes a number of international students, allows for more opportunities to “stand out” by building community from the inside out. Independence motivates this type of student to seek new experiences. A curiosity about the world fuels personal journeys to institutions beyond their own countries’ borders. These students seek program opportunities highlighting diversity and intercultural communication. Civic engagement encourages a feeling of unity among students, instills empathy, and creates commonalities despite different persuasions. Most international students readily lean towards leadership roles on and off campus. The Center for Intercultural Advancement provides opportunities for these students to utilize skills in the community that intensify their cultural transition experiences. Local programs such as Achievement First, City Harvest, NYS Office for New Americans and the YMCA engage students as mentors, tutors, multi-lingual office assistants, program managers, ESL instructors, interpreters and translators. One specific example is Naofall Falohan, a professional basketball player who founded the Project Ming Foundation. The goal of this project is to provide the communities of Benin with shoes (www.projectming.org).

Through education, students are exposed to people different from themselves. Wagner College has developed programs that broaden opportunities for faculty, staff and students to internationalize their experiences as well as the campus climate. Under the theme of “Expanding Your Horizons,” Wagner College offers winter session courses that provide experiential learning through 10-12 days of faculty-led trips. Upon the students’ return to campus, the courses continue through the spring semester. Each course counts as one unit (3 credits) towards spring registration. For those students interested in becoming global citizens, performing volunteer work, or immersing themselves in a new culture, these courses have the potential for truly expanding student horizons beyond the traditional classroom lectures. One course example is Bangladesh: Chemistry/Environmental Pollution and Health (CHEM 291), for science and non-science majors. This course will address water and air pollution in developing nations with special focus on Bangladesh, where the worst mass poisoning the world has ever witnessed due to natural contamination of groundwater by arsenic is unfolding. Students will make field visits to affected areas to see the arsenic-contaminated wells, water purification systems, and life in rural Bangladesh. In addition, the course will cover household energy and the impact of indoor air pollution in rural households on the health of mothers and children in developing nations. Alternative Spring Break provides another opportunity for Wagner students to broaden their perspectives. During a week of service, participants examine the social dynamics of race, ethnicity, class and gender, their influence on institutional structures and social policy, and the possibilities for social change. Previous trip locations have been Toronto, Boston, New Orleans, West Virginia and Haiti. Some trips focused on post-natural-disaster relief, while others impacted Native American communities or participated in Habitat for Humanity in El Salvador.

Over the past few decades, colleges and universities in the United States have established centers for some form of intercultural, community and/or civic engagement. These centers exist in physical and web space as a connecting point for students and faculty inclined to become civically engaged. True to the core mission of the university, they do not alter its existing structure. At Wagner, the Center for Intercultural Advancement is first and foremost an intimate space for students, some of whom are far away from home and in need of help acclimating to a new country and environment. The structure of Wagner College’s nationally recognized undergraduate curriculum, The Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts, combines traditional liberal arts with integrative learning, reflective practice and the infinite professional opportunities offered by our location in New York City. International students who participate in the Wagner Plan share their culture within many metro area settings, where they are taking on leadership roles as global citizens.