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Sixties Flashback
Civic awareness is alive and well at Muhlenberg

hose who believe student activism on college campuses went out of style with tie-dye T-shirts may need to take a look at recent happenings on the Muhlenberg campus because, like bell-bottom jeans, civic-minded students are making a comeback.
The cultural change that is evolving at Muhlenberg is, in part, a result of the College's involvement in an initiative known as the Public Engagement Project (PEP). PEP, which is funded by a $150,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, is a three-year project designed to promote a more engaged college community.
PEP's mission is to foster the skills, knowledge, and understanding that are essential for effective citizen action in today's diverse democratic society. Through the development of new courses and teaching methods, and by supporting student mentors and campus forums, PEP challenges students, faculty and administrators to more deeply connect with issues of diversity and unity that shape public life.
Dr. Jack Gambino, associate professor of political science and PEP director, says that the PEP initiative is an ideal fit for Muhlenberg, especially at a time when the College has made the important commitment to character-building.
" President Taylor is calling on us to develop a 'College of Character,'" Gambino says, "and to me character includes all those skills of citizenship that allow students to participate effectively and deliberatively in the political system, the democratic system."
Photo of PEP project.A key component of PEP, Gambino says, has been a series of seminars designed to help faculty find ways to bring contemporary public issues into the classroom. The first seminar, delivered last spring, was attended by 12 faculty members from a spectrum of academic disciplines ranging from biology to education, and a second faculty seminar wrapped up this spring.
" The seminar participants then put together new courses, some of which have been taught this year. The courses are designed to get students to talk about issues of diversity in ways that they normally don't," Gambino says. The second group is also putting together courses that will be taught next year and when all is said and done we will have about 15 new courses.
" There are also a number of courses that have been revised," Gambino adds, offering as an example Professor James Bloom of the English department, who revamped a traditional course on African-American literature to include topics like affirmative action. Other courses cover topics ranging from public education and land use issues to social justice, immigration policy, and environmental racism.
Another important part of PEP has been an emphasis on service learning, Gambino says, which encourages faculty to send their students out into the community to obtain a first-hand perspective on issues like homelessness and hunger by spending time in a shelter or at a food bank.
" We thought the best way of raising these kinds of issues was to frame them not in terms of a classroom debate but Photo of PEP members discussing projects.by getting students publicly involved," Gambino says. But this is not just volunteer work because a lot of students do that already. With service learning you have to bring it back into the classroom to help the students to understand the public debate around issues like quality of education, the lack of affordable housing and hunger, and in particular to look at the diverse groups affected by those concerns.
" Basically," he adds, "it's a way to transform volunteerism and community service into a greater understanding of the political nature of the problems."
Muhlenberg students also have a role in the implementation of the PEP program on campus, serving as PEP mentors. The 18 students recruited as mentors serve as assistants in the classroom to the faculty teaching PEP courses by helping to facilitate discussions and to coordinate some of the service learning projects. According to Gambino, these students were chosen for their ability to demonstrate independent and dynamic thinking with others in a classroom setting. They have participated in various training workshops throughout the project to help them to more effectively carry out their duties.
Kristen DiLorenzo '02 was motivated to become a PEP mentor after enrolling in Gambino's first PEP course titled "Diversity, Democracy and Dialogue." DiLorenzo explains: "I had respect for every single person in that class, especially since everyone was willing to admit their original views, but also willing to change them. That's the idea of dialogue - that maybe afterward you don't stand in the same place you once did anymore." For the 2001-2002 academic year, she was Gambino's right-hand woman on the PEP project, with an extensive list of responsibilities that included writing newsletter articles, coordinating the faculty seminar, and interviewing all PEP professors, mentors and students.
DiLorenzo and the other PEP mentors conducted a campus-wide survey of students' political attitudes and behavior as part of Gambino's PEP course, a project aided by Dr. Christopher Borick, director
of Muhlenberg's new Institute of Public Opinion. That effort included asking 400 students questions concerning their ideas about the kind of diversity that is present on campus and how they perceived themselves in terms of ethnic, religious and racial identity. Not surprisingly, the survey found an array of differences in student attitudes and in their level of activism.
The final component of PEP focuses on bringing the core elements of the program to the campus community at large through periodic campus-wide activities. In April, PEP sponsored a well-attended forum called "The New Student Activist Workshop." The day-long event was designed to share new ideas on civic engagement through a series of workshops on service learning, consumer activism, and the performing arts as public activism. Activist and author Paul Rogat Loeb delivered the keynote address.
Loeb has spent 25 years researching citizen responsibility and empowerment - asking what makes some people choose lives of social commitment, while others abstain. In addition to "Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time" and "Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus,"
he has written two other books, "Nuclear Culture" and "Hope in Hard Times."
Next year PEP will continue its efforts to stimulate public dialogue on campus, according to Gambino. "We will continue to challenge students to explore new avenues of citizenship in our increasingly diverse and global society," he says. "For, as Muhlenberg's mission statement says, civic engagement is at the very heart of the College's commitment to help students develop the capacities of imaginative and critical thinking that make possible humane and responsible living in a free society."
TOP: One of the many PEP projects that linked 'Berg students to the local community.
BOTTOM: Kristen DiLorenzo '02, David Sobotkin '02, Lauren Cunnigham '03 and Devon Segel '02 talk about some of the diversity issues raised through their involvement with the PEP project.


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