College students as off-campus doers

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Two events in 2001, the first iPod and 9/11, had a big impact on teens. The iPod had the potential for them to tune out. The other to tune in. Which one won? A survey of college students reveals this pod of iPodians went outward. Volunteering is up 20 percent.

Using census data, the federal Corporation for National and Community Service has found that 3 in 10 college students, or 3.3 million, volunteered last year, mostly as mentors or tutors, and often with religious groups. That's up 600,000 from three years earlier, or just after 9/11.

What's more, the rate of increase in college-age volunteering was more than double that for adults in the US.

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Surprising? Not really to faculty who champion the idea of students devoting a larger portion of their salad days to either "civic engagement" or "service learning." Many schools ask (and some require) students to think outside the idea of college as a selfish pursuit of executive suites and stock options, or simply as nose-in-the-books research. They've designed courses to teach the selfless art of engaging with a community in need of assistance, tapping skills learned in higher education to influence real-life situations.

One leader in this public-service movement is the University of Pennsylvania. It has embraced its West Philadelphia neighbors by setting up dozens of courses for students to work in the community, using knowledge from a range of disciplines, such as nutrition. But the most visible evidence of this trend came after hurricane Katrina, when some 200,000 students used their college breaks to help rebuild the Gulf Coast.

This connective approach to learning has been bubbling up since the me-first years of the 1970s and '80s that so alarmed schools of higher education. Colleges have long seen their role as shapers of society and of new civic-minded citizens, not merely commercial career factories or ivory-tower labs. During the 1990s, money flowed to help colleges design ways to collaborate with local communities as a teaching tool. It's paid off.

One mark of this movement's success is that theCarnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, widely respected for how it classifies higher education schools by type, set up a new category this year for schools to identify themselves as good at teaching through partnerships with communities.

Carnegie and others are focused on the idea of "engagement," or mutual sharing, rather than students going out on one-sided missions to "help others." Lana Rakow, community engagement director at the University of North Dakota, describes this two-way learning as: "I have this to bring to the table, but I know that you have things to bring, too. You know about your community. Let's see what we can do together."

Leaders of this movement toward student volunteering and learning in communities are sometimes frustrated. They say many faculty still see their role as simply classroom teachers or researchers in narrow disciplines. And many young people are not as involved or aware of national politics as generations before them.

This first generation raised on the Internet now knows all too well the need for face-to-face and less self- absorbed encounters. They can't download compassion from iTunes. They must give it away to see more of it.

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