Updated: Jul 25
By Safae Lacheheb
How to link students learning at universities with civic engagement and service in communities?
To answer this question, 40 representatives of universities and NGOs from 10 Arab countries from North Africa and the Middle East were gathered from 1-3 September 2014 for a conference at the American University of Cairo. The aim of the conference was to discuss ways to bolster the potential of young people through the integration of civic engagement in university curricula, by providing various models and program experiences.
I was invited to represent the High Atlas Foundation at the event, to present HAF’s experience of promoting civic engagement and social responsibility among university students at Hassan II University by training them to work collaboratively with local civil service organizations (CSOs) to develop community initiatives.
The 3-day event was facilitated by trainers from the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement which has conducted several studies with university students on the subject, with the participation of organizations like Ma’an Arab University Alliance for Civic Engagement from Egypt and Innovations in Civic Participation from the US.
The activities over the 3 days varied between panel discussions conducted by university professors, staff members and students and by NGOs to share experiences, in addition to brainstorming activities and group planning sessions to design Community Based Learning activities.
On the first day of the workshops, the discussion topics revolved around definitions, challenges, drivers and opportunities of community engagement in the Arab world.
Some of the drivers shared by the participants were youth educational and self accomplishment needs, and the desire to serve the community encouraged by religion and the common culture in the Arab region. Some of the barriers mentioned were the lack of financial resources, a lack of the concept of civic engagement in the Arab educational systems, and the absence of a social project that is clear to all actors.
On the same day, a panel discussion was conducted by representatives from different universities who shared their experiences about community service programs. In these programs, students provided direct and indirect community service as part of their academic course work, learned about the community context in which they served, and developed an understanding of the connection between the service and their academic work.
In the University of Literature in Esmaelea, Egypt, the students take a course called “Education for Sustainability”. After learning about local communities and how to identify their needs, they were trained for a year by a social specialist to serve in a local orphanage. When they finished their classes they became supervisors in the orphanage.
Students at the American University of Cairo are taught community needs assessment techniques and are offered the opportunity to serve with community partners, assisting with community needs diagnosis, data collection, surveys, and providing legal help to the local associations.
As part of their community service, they provided English classes and sanitary education to Syrian refugees; worked on a media campaign to create awareness about the Syrian cause, and published a book about their experience with the refugees, from which sales revenues go to NGOs that support refugees.
In another experience in Lebanon, university students benefit from a community based learning program and part of their community service is to help the refugees from the Palestinian community through a project of mobile schools, providing classes to children to help to their later integration in the educational system.
In Jordan, a program including democratic thinking, communication skills, and gender awareness was developed in universities to counter violence between students from different ethnic backgrounds, to give them the opportunity to understand and talk about social issues in their communities and to later serve in these communities.
It was impressive to learn that civic engagement education in Palestine begins in the first grade in elementary schools, giving the chance to students to provide community services starting an early age.
Because community service programs provide learning in class and in the community, these programs are designed through collaboration between the community and the academic institutions, relying on partnerships with different actors especially CSOs. For this reason, representatives of CSOs from different countries were invited to facilitate a panel discussion about their university partnerships in programs designed to foster youth civic engagement.
During the panel, the varying roles of CSOs in the community partnership process were discussed, including their role as place for faculty and students to carry out action research; their role as an intermediary for students who are interested in engaging with community issues; the support they provide to develop service-learning components of courses, and their capacity building programs which aim to strengthen active citizenship engagement by young people.
As a panelist, I presented the High Atlas Foundation’s experience which is similar to these examples, as HAF provides different services to university students through its Center for Community Consensus Building and Sustainable Development in partnership with the Hassan II University in Mohammedia.
Since its opening, the Center has worked toward advancing the participation of students in the planning and implementation of socio-economic and environmental projects by way of experientially training students in facilitating community dialogue.
The Center also contributed to building knowledge of sustainable development practices through applied activities (including community workshops and training sessions) and through scholarly research both within Morocco and internationally. It also helped to bridge the gap that can exist between civil society organizations (CSOs) and a regional public university.
Through its last program of capacity building in participatory democratic planning of development projects, students were trained in participatory methods to serve their communities and complete their academic learning by practical and experiential learning. As a result, the students developed projects for their communities and became more engaged in their faculty, providing community services in different contexts.
In the different experiences presented during the conference, learning through and about took place at different levels. In some cases, community service was fully integrated in the university curricula, this is a level that combines high levels of learning with high levels of service, and it represents sustainable learning that will stay with students in the long term.
From the comparison of the different models in the Arab world, the following elements were highlighted to effectively combine learning with community engagement inside universities: good planning; creation of awareness and a culturally-relevant vision of civic engagement; assessment of community needs; involvement of students and communities in the development of the course of community service learning; alignment of the service with the course goals, and the strengthening of cooperation between universities and NGOs in different countries to learn from experiences in developing service learning curricula.
The High Atlas Foundation would like to thank Ma’an Arab University Alliance and the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement and Innovations for Civic Participation for the organization of the workshop, and National Endowment for Democracy for assisting with Safae’s travel.