Learning to Lead
Preparing students for a lifetime of civic engagement
By Christie Zwahlen, MA '09
“I’ve essentially been working toward this for 30 years,” says Allison Alden ’80, MA ’81, EdD ’02, founding director of Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement (CCE). “I’ve had various roles here — running research centers, teaching as a faculty member, leading community-based initiatives. The focus has always been developing relationships between the community and campus for public benefit. Throughout the years, I always thought we needed to have a center dedicated to facilitating these connections. Brian Rose [vice president for student affairs] took the concept and ran with it, and now here we are.”
The CCE was founded in 2010, to “work with communities within and beyond campus to provide various rewarding and meaningful opportunities to students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members, and support the attainment of academic, personal and professional growth through civic engagement to develop active and engaged citizens.”
Initially a team of three, the CCE staff now ranges from 15 to 20 people, depending on semester aims. Six professional staff members oversee programs, which are largely run by student paraprofessionals. Graduate assistants, interns, work-study students, faculty-student scholars, Vote Everywhere ambassadors (funded by the Andrew Goodman Foundation) and volunteers make up the student cohort, a fluctuating body whose members cycle in and out on a semesterly or yearly basis.
“Students in our office have a very high level of responsibility,” says CCE Assistant Director Christie Zwahlen, MA ’09, “They run programs but also share decision-making power with professional staff. With a large staff, that’s sometimes difficult, but because our work centers on collaboration, it’s essential to what we do. If your goal is to engage and support students in this type of work, it’s essential to have them driving the process.”
At its most basic level, the CCE provides information to students, faculty and staff about opportunities to get involved in the community. Their weekly e-newsletter (reaching over 4,500 self-subscribed students) and a student-developed database called Service Listings make information about opportunities accessible on an ongoing basis. In addition, the CCE runs several community-based programs in-house; provides support to faculty who incorporate the community into their teaching, research and scholarship; and runs a series of educational events and workshops throughout the year.
“We do take on a lot,” says Zwahlen, “probably more than most centers our size, but when opportunities pop up, we try to seize them. It’s not just about one-time volunteering — not even close. It’s about making lasting change in our communities. That’s what the center is striving to do and what we try to impart to students.”
Support for community engagement across campus is growing, thanks in part to President Harvey Stenger’s Road Map to Premier strategic plan, which emphasizes community engagement in two of its five strategic priorities. Funding from the Road Map enabled the CCE to expand programs and services and hire three additional staff members: Communications Specialist Laura Reindl, Faculty Engagement Associate Jessica Arends and Research and Development Specialist Alison Handy Twang ’11, MPA ’13.
Not knowing what to expect at first, Reindl has found working with such a large team of students energizing and rewarding. “The students in our office are some of the most driven and motivated people I’ve ever worked with. They have great ideas, partnered with a desire to create real change in their community, and we help them develop the skill set to turn those ideas into reality.”
“We insist that students be the lifeblood of the office,” says Tom Lamphere ’73, senior staff assistant. It’s one of the things that sets the CCE apart — the students take part in planning, decision-making, goal setting and everything in between. We really are a team.”
“The philosophy is simple,” says Alden. “In order to be serious about democracy, we must infuse it into all aspects of our work. In the classroom, in the office and beyond. Why waste an opportunity to educate?”
For students, working in the CCE means generating ideas and implementing them with guidance and support from professional staff and other team members, but independence and individual responsibility taking is stressed. Expectations are high and feedback is frequently provided. An overwhelming majority of the students flourish and all seem to grow in some way from the experience.
“Austin Blumenfeld worked in various roles in the CCE for all four years of his undergraduate career and really left an imprint on the community and the campus,” says Lamphere. “Austin first got involved as a freshman during the 2011 flood, serving meals to displaced community members. It was his second week in Binghamton — and his birthday, nonetheless — but he just showed up and asked how he could help. From there, he served as a CCE service ambassador, hosted the CCE radio show and co-chaired the Political Engagement Leadership Team with Allison [Alden].”
The radio show is one of the unique ways the CCE has worked to connect the campus to the greater community. Airing weekly on WHRW, the University’s free-format radio station, the half-hour show centers around public affairs and issues that affect students, faculty, staff and the community. During his tenure as host, Blumenfeld interviewed everyone from local politicians to student groups. Stenger served as Blumenfeld’s first guest.
“I loved interviewing Dr. Stenger,” says Blumenfeld. “He was pretty new to campus at the time, so it was a great chance for people to learn more about what makes him tick and also get him connected with the CCE. That’s what’s cool about CCE. As a student, I could walk into Allison’s office and say, ‘Hey, I think this is the direction we need to take the show this semester,’ or ‘I’ve got this cool idea for a project,’ and then we’d work together on it for the rest of the semester. It was a balance of autonomy and teamwork.”
Blumenfeld, who graduated in 2015, is serving a year with the public-service program City Year in Boulder, Colo., providing extra academic support to underserved youth. “Honestly, I can say that my time working with CCE strongly influenced my decision to work with City Year. It made me more aware of the issues going on in America and that I can actually do something to contribute. I want to have a career in public service. I’m not sure exactly what I’ll end up doing, but I think it’s important for young people to be involved in solutions.”