UVM president encourages 'civic engagement'

Interview / Judith Ramaley

President Judith Ramaley knows she has some sales work to do with her own faculty if the University of Vermont is to fully embrace the notion that "civic engagement" and academics go together.

When she first arrived at UVM and the term "service learning" came up, she says, "someone pulled me aside and said, 'We don't use that language here.' I guess they thought it was all about giving academic credit for breathing or something.... So I would never use the term 'service learning' today. What we're doing at UVM is community-based research."

The semantic debate belies service learning's deep roots here. UVM offered the nation's first service-learning courses for credit in 1970. At its height in the 1980s, 250 students a year participated in the school's Community Service Learning Internship program. Financial pressures forced cuts until, by the mid-1990s, only 30 students were involved.

Since Ramaley arrived in 1997, however, the focus has shifted back to what she calls "civic engagement." The internship program is now joined by eight new service-learning courses. And other courses are on the way. A second group of eight faculty volunteers is being trained with grant funds.

Today, at least 220 of the more than 7,400 undergraduates are involved in some aspect of service learning. And if Dr. Ramaley has her way, there will be many more.

"I don't want any UVM student to graduate without knowing where knowledge comes from - whether it's in a lab, in the community, writing a sonata, or by developing a new service program," says Ramaley, the national chair of Campus Compact, which promotes service learning. "Some say the purpose of higher education is to develop the mind without the constraints of daily life. Another view is that it is to develop good citizens. My answer to both of these is 'yes.' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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