Castleton University has always taken pride in its image as “the small school with a big heart.” It is the kind of place where people still hold doors open for each other, use words like “please” and “thank you” and always go out of their way to help someone in need.
This attitude is what many there refer to as “The Castleton Way,” and new Associate Academic Dean Peter Kimmel has made it his priority to take this way of thinking and reflect it onto the larger Castleton community by broadening the school’s Civic Engagement Program.
“Castleton University does have a long tradition of community service,” Kimmel said pensively from behind the large wooden desk in his corner office in Woodruff Hall.
“Our Civic Engagement Program has been around for years but maybe hasn’t had as much oversight as it should have. I’m trying to streamline the whole thing so that more students can get out into the community and apply what they’ve learned in our classrooms to civic engagement.”
At Castleton, all students are strongly encouraged to participate in the Civic Engagement Program which can earn them a Civic Engagement Certificate that goes on their final transcript. To receive it, students are required to take four classes designated as “CE” or Civic Engagement, and also perform 160 hours of community service.
After doing so, any interested student must declare for their CE Certificate by taking a one-credit prep course and then designing a project or completing a paper demonstrating their leadership in the community. That student must then present their project or paper in front of a Civic Engagement Committee and after all of that has been taken care of, the student can finally receive their certificate, which has the potential to open many doors in that student’s favor.
“Having a Civic Engagement Certificate on their resumè can really make a difference in helping a student get into a good graduate school program,” said Kimmel. “It also shows any potential future employers that a student has experience in organization and leadership skills, as well as experience working in a community. They really do look for that kind of community activism.”
Jennifer Turchi is a sociology, social work, and criminal justice professor currently teaching the Civic Engagement Certificate prep course at Castleton. While it is only her first year doing so, Turchi has already found the program to be incredibly rewarding for both her students and the communities they’ve been able to help.
“I think this program is important on different levels,” explained Turchi, enthusiastically. “We’re a relatively large campus in relation to the small community we inhabit, so there are plenty of opportunities for students to give back. This can provide a chance for students to feel connected to their community, and when they feel connected, they feel more invested and are more likely to look out for that community. This program also allows our students to make connections with non-profit organizations and some students have even received job offers from the organizations they have served.”
At Castleton, only education and sociology students are required to take CE classes for their majors, but they are not required to pursue the Civic Engagement Certificate. For many of them, however, it’s the logical next step.
Monica McEnerny is an education professor who sometimes teaches CE courses, but always encourages her students to go for their Civic Engagement Certificate, if they can.
“Education students are required to take two CE courses anyway,” said McEnerny, with a patient smile. “So, of course, I always remind my students that they need just two additional classes and then they can go and get that certificate. Teachers are always community oriented individuals so I think it fits naturally that education students should be civically engaged, too.”
One of McEnerny’s students who echoed her opinions on civic engagement is sophomore Andrea Tester, who is currently considering going for her CE Certificate during her senior year.
“I remember hearing about the Civic Engagement Program while on my campus tour here, but didn’t think about it again until Dean Kimmel came in and talked about it in one of my classes,” said Tester. “I grew up in a household where we did stuff in the community but I appreciate it more now when I get to see the joy on the faces of the people I help out. I know a lot of students say they don’t have time for civic engagement, but I think that if you manage your time and try to help out when you can, it can go a surprisingly long way. Even now, people from the community still remember me from when I helped my family serve community dinners as a child.”
But, the Civic Engagement Program is currently facing a major student awareness problem. Many Castleton students have never heard of the program, and the school is still struggling to find the best possible ways to reach the students who haven’t.
“We’re trying hard to get the word out,” said Kimmel. “Right now, I’m in the process of changing the program’s website slightly to have everything connect better. We may also start sending out emails to students about the program. We need to continue raising awareness on campus and I think we’re just about there.”
Gabriela Guerrero, a Castleton University junior, has never heard of the program but said it sounds like a great opportunity.
“For Castleton students, giving back to the community should be a must,” stressed Guerrero, while relaxing in Castleton’s Campus Center. “Some students may say they can’t help out because they’re working or taking a lot of classes but if they really want to contribute to the community they will find the time.”
Junior student Logan Spencer was also unaware the program existed.
“I hadn’t heard of the Civic Engagement Program before but I think that community service is very important,” said Spencer. “Young people are pretty detached these days so participating in this program could lead to a lot of personal growth and development for students. Definitely more so than participating in the Soundings program does.”
English professor Chris Boettcher has taught a number of CE classes and always enjoys the opportunities they allow his students.
“I remember for one CE class I taught, we did something called a Bio-Blitz,” reminisced Boettcher, with a large grin. “The students in the class got to take local school kids out into nature to observe animals and wildlife in an ecosystem. I think it helped the students realize the difference they can make in the world. And when we learn about the world, we learn about ourselves and gain experiences to get better. When we learn about our communities, and the lives of others, we learn how to be a citizen. We learn how a citizen thinks and feels, and we learn what citizens do.”
Anyone interested in checking out the Civic Engagement Program further should head to www.castleton.edu/academics/undergraduate-programs/civic-engagement-program/ for more information.