University’s engagement efforts rewarded with membership in Project Pericles

Drew University’s commitment to making community service and civic engagement part of students’ lives has helped it become the first school in New Jersey chosen to participate in the prestigious Project Pericles, the brainchild of philanthropist Eugene M. Lang.

“Eugene Lang’s Project Pericles brings together colleges and universities with an active, deep commitment to linking academic learning to the fundamental qualities of citizenship in a democracy,” Drew President Robert Weisbuch said.  “We hope to learn a great deal from our peers and to contribute our own program ideas in turn.”

Lang, a self-made multimillionaire, launched Project Pericles in 2001 with 10 institutions of higher learning throughout the country. Today, there are 27 participants, all committed to social responsibility and active citizenship.

Drew joined Project Pericles – named for the Athenian statesman who advanced democracy in the fifth century B.C. – in the fall. The board of trustees officially made civic education a central part of the university’s mission and is setting up a committee to ensure the commitment is fulfilled.

The university also belongs to Campus Compact, the largest national coalition of college and university presidents dedicated to promoting community service and civic engagement.

Through its Center for Civic Engagement, created in 2008, Drew is building an infrastructure to expand community-based learning. The center encourages experiential learning that benefits both students and society.

Drew has received federal recognition for its achievements in volunteerism and civic engagement when it was named to the 2009 President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.

The value of making civic engagement part of the college experience cannot be overstated, said Amy Koritz, director of the university’s Center for Civic Engagement. Democracy requires a well-informed citizenry, a view held by founding father Thomas Jefferson, and institutions of higher learning have an obligation to foster that, she said.

Civic engagement also makes for better students, who become better employees. “It gives students practice in connecting academic learning with action and decision-making in the world,” Koritz said.

Research shows that students involved in the community are more likely to graduate and less likely to engage in unconstructive social activities, such as drinking, said Koritz, explaining,  “We create a culture that reinforces and supports student success.”

Koritz, an English professor, has her students working with the Jersey Battered Women’s Service, developing educational tool kits for middle- and high-schoolers. Students in a theater class are helping Newark high school students produce plays they write. And a theological class is working with Neighborhood House in Morristown to assess the community’s attitude toward day laborers. Several other community-based courses will be added in the fall, she said.

Drew students are embracing the movement.

Among the incoming freshman class, 133 have applied to become Drew Civic Scholars, a program started last fall that supports students committed to community service. The 15 recipients chosen for the 2010-11 academic year will receive $5,000 scholarships and get to participate in special classes, workshops, seminars and off-campus service projects.

In April, two Drew Political Science majors will present a proposal calling for the end to the U.S. use of coal as an energy source at Project Pericles’ national conference in New York City.

“Civic engagement is a beautiful way of integrating the founding impulse of Drew – as a seminary built on a faith tradition of justice and integrity – with the core values of a liberal arts education in a democracy,” Koritz said.—Margaret McHugh