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Community Colleges Need to Embrace Civic Engagement

Oct 11, 2018


by Casandra E. Ulbrich, Macomb Community College




Casandra E. Ulbrich, PhD serves as the Vice President for College Advancement and Community Relations at Macomb Community College. She also serves as the Co-President of the Michigan State Board of Education.

At first glance, it may seem that community colleges are at a disadvantage when it comes to civic engagement. After all, none of our students live on campus, most attend part-time, and many are working adults. This, coupled with the fact that many community college students are first-generation and a large percentage receive some form of financial aid, means these students in particular, may be focused on other priorities.

It is precisely because of the student makeup that community colleges need to embrace a civic engagement agenda, and why doing so can have such a large impact. Community colleges educate nearly half of the undergraduate students in the United States. Besides being affordable and accessible, these colleges serve a diverse student population comprised mostly of local residents. Community colleges are, as their name implies, firmly rooted in the community they serve. Therefore, civic engagement efforts on community college campuses serves students and the larger region as well.


Macomb Community College, located in Southeast Michigan, has a tradition of serving as a convener of public dialogue. The college has been the site of presidential candidate visits dating back decades. As President, Barack Obama visited the college twice, each time to announce major educational initiatives. During the 2016 election, the college served as a venue for presidential candidates, including Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

But, it’s not enough to engage citizens during election cycles. The process of civic engagement needs to be ongoing. That’s why the college has developed new opportunities for discovery. Two years ago, the college initiated a speakers series, bringing national opinion leaders to the college to present on topics of interest. Speakers included the New York Times’ Nickolas Kristoff, Time Magazine’s Joe Klein and The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne.


Last year, with funding from local and national foundations, the college created the James Jacobs Legacy Project, a civic engagement initiative that introduces topics of interest and brings national thought-leaders to campus to meet with students and the general public. Our first year speaker was former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who met with students throughout the day and presented to an audience of 800 community members in the evening.


By combining access to both students and the greater community, the college unites in a common goal of greater dialogue, understanding, and engagement, thus fulfilling the mission of a community’s college.


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