What Comes Next
There is a produce market not far from my house, piled high with fruits and vegetables native to countries around the globe. Papaya, Chinese long beans, yucca root, lychee, bitter melon, and persimmon, the variety and possibilities for delectable cuisine are endless. Standing in the checkout line, on a busy Sunday afternoon, surrounded by a cacophony of languages I realized something; this is an unordinary experience for me. I have to make an effort to surround myself among diverse cultures and traditions. As a social justice educator, I found this troubling.
The vast majority of my experience as a social justice educator has meant exposing students to the intersections of social justice and service-learning. Yet, the past year has challenged me to reflect on my personal and professional commitment to social justice in new ways. My career path has taken me beyond the confines of campus leaving me with a greater understanding of the challenges encountered outside the university setting when trying to embody social justice principles in personal and professional spheres.
I think to the experiences of recent alumni, often emboldened in their commitment to invoke a more socially just world. How does the indispensable value of a structured community of allies afford a foundation for students to explore social justice allyhood? For student affairs educators who push students to discover the dimensions of social justice through community engagement, is there more we can do to prepare aspiring graduates to remain committed to leading a socially just life? Astin (1993) and later Terenzini, Springer, Pascarella and Nora (1995) describe the uniqueness of the college environment in fostering social justice learning and engagement. Inviting alumni to share their stories of struggle may offer insight into means by which educators can better prepare upcoming alum for what lies ahead.
The outcomes of having these discussions with alumni were striking, although not surprising, with many echoing the sentiments of their peers. In our correspondence, both virtual and in person, I found myself aligned with their voices. When faced with the challenge of losing the campus connection, I too struggled with many of the same things. These parallels suggest educators have an opportunity to support students with resources and reflective activities that prompt discussion on the post- college transition. Among the responses, the following trends and sentiments were salient:
Feeling isolated since losing their campus support networks:
“It may be hard to find a group of people after college that you can have great conversations about your thoughts and ideas for different social justice issues and how you can work towards those goals, but everyone can do a little something to help out whether it is through their professional work or in their personal lives, but it’s more difficult on your own.”
Feeling stifled when navigating pathways and mechanisms for engagement:
“The first challenge is that while sometimes subtle or unnoticed, mostly due to the blinders many college students unknowingly wear, there are structures, opportunities and safety nets provided by Universities that simply do not exist in the ‘real world’.”
Feeling their professional work and networks often didn’t align with social justice goals and values:
“The challenge post-graduation or outside of the ‘university bubble’ is that the effort has to be initiated and maintained by the individual. Between personal, social and work related challenges of early adulthood the social justice themes I and so many others loved learning about in college do not have the same intentional space to develop.”
Implications for Practitioners Respondents had considered these challenges prior to our correspondence, seeking opportunities for civic work after graduation. This suggests the work being done is valuable and impactful and merits recognition. Several participants acknowledged their gratitude for the exploration of this topic, hoping the learning opportunities for current and future students can go beyond their own. Still, the limitations in a graduate’s preparation warrants exploration and demands educators cultivate strategies to address them.
In civic work grounded in the social change model of leadership (Astin 1996), educators address the relationship of power, privilege and social identity to foster an understanding of the perpetuation of social problems and the need to serve alongside affected communities using an asset-based approach (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). Building on these concepts, educators can prompt students to identify methods for aspiring graduates to continue their social justice commitment through critical reflection and honest analyses of how their identities influence their worldview. Furthermore, encouraging students to develop and practice strategies for interrupting instances of oppression through ally tactics can heed students with concrete ideas to maintain active in social justice work irrespective of their ability to participate in service and civic action groups. Pedagogical models can support educators in facilitating this learning which provide rubrics for considering how we can approach this goal. The Center for Service and Learning at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) with their Civic-Minded Graduate Model is a strong example of such efforts. This model prioritizes the integration of identity development, educational experiences and civic experiences as key in developing civic-minded graduates. The learning objectives of the service-learning practitioner must include an emphasis on maintaining a commitment to social justice beyond graduation, and should assist students in making the link between an understanding of social identity in its relation to community engagement and in its relevancy beyond.
The college environment offers a forum for allyhood, fostering opportunities for students to cultivate discussion and support for upholding their social justice convictions. Establishing such communities beyond graduation proves increasingly difficult when recent alum are often transient for many years before settling into a career and community, experience feelings of apprehension in entering existing circles and community networks, and face the challenges of work- life balance. Practitioners can assist students in reflecting on these coming challenges in advance of graduation and push students to consider strategies they can employ to counteract feelings of isolation and displacement.
Many students who are inspired to work for social justice are driven by the notion that change must be immediate, large-scale, and long lasting. While it is inspiring for educators to see this drive, fostering a student’s awareness that social change is a time intensive process with success not always immediately evident, may offer perspective post- graduation. Without a network of allies within reach, working for social change may take different forms. Students should be assured that their commitment to social justice is valuable and needed, no matter the scale. The temptation to believe one must change the world in a day promotes a sense of discontent and can lead to a sense of hopelessness. As educators, we must make clear that change takes place on both the micro and macro-level.
Lastly, practitioners involved in civic engagement programs need to ensure students understand the plethora of ways they can continue their social justice engagement post-graduation. Many students whose primary social justice involvement in college is through volunteering or other community engagement graduate believing that if they cannot develop similar civic engagement pathways post- graduation, they are not engaged in promoting social justice. The reality is that there are many ways to integrate a commitment to social justice in one’s life; civic engagement is but one.
Great effort is harnessed in cultivating critical awareness and a sense of social responsibility in students. For this capacity to diminish upon graduation due to unanticipated challenges would be wasteful and tragic. It is our charge, as social justice educators, to ensure the sustainability of the learning and development we foster in students extends beyond their time on campus. With that aim in mind, it is our responsibility to promote intentional reflection and encourage students to imagine beyond their role as social change agents on campus. This may be micro-scale change in itself, but is sure to have macro-level impacts.
Astin, A.W. (1993). Assessment for excellence: The philosophy and practice of assessment and evaluation in higher education. New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.
Astin, H. S. (1996). A social change model of leadership development: guidebook: version III. Higher Education Research Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, CA.
Kretzmann, J. & McKnight, J. (1993). Building communities from the inside out: A path toward finding and mobilizing community assets. Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL.
Slosberg, K. S., Hatcher, J. A., & Bringle, R.G. Civic- Minded Graduate: A North Star. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 18(1), 19-33.
Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Pascarella, E. T., and Nora, A. Academic and Out-of-Class Influences on