Civic Engagement Empowers Students

A guest blog post by Melissa Arroyo, NJHS adviser at The TASIS School in Dorado, PR

When students handed out provisions to a community in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria; while they participated in the National School Walkout Day; and as they supported the gender equality march of the 2018 International Women’s Day, it became apparent that these teenagers were asserting and redefining their roles as learners—but it should not be surprising. Looking back on the 2017–18 academic year, major events stand out: natural and man-made disasters, political debates and controversies, civil rights activism, advocacy/protests, among others. The various surreal events and tragedies have activated not just adults but also students globally, bringing about a resurgence of the importance of civic engagement.

Community service and advocacy are at the heart of civic engagement, promoting the idea that advocating for different causes will translate into valuable everyday interpersonal relationships. As a National Junior Honor Society (NJHS) adviser, this clicked immediately with the Global Citizenship initiative highlighted by the NASSP Student Leadership Advisory Committee. Civic engagement parallels with the three pillars of the initiative—equity, engagement, and empowerment—and should not be overlooked in the ongoing mentoring process.

During the elementary years, children participate in many activities that help the community, both locally and globally. For the majority of them, this engagement becomes a lifelong commitment. For others, however, these projects may seem like a whirlwind of ideas and actions they do not fully understand. At times, this kind of engagement may end up creating a divide between those “who do” and those “who don’t.”

Unfortunately, many students end up thinking that engagement is too complicated, but they may benefit from a mentor who can reintroduce them to community service. This is where special groups, such as Honor Societies, clubs, and councils can help spread the word that service and student voice are not mutually exclusive. The scaffolding for this change in mindset is as complex as any growth process: It takes time, patience, and practice. Nevertheless, by empowering students to become agents of change, the process yields positive results.

There are as many strategies to tackle engagement as there are students—so a one-size-fits-all solution is not effective. Sharing ideas creates more opportunities. By forming committees, advisers and students can divide the work to transform the challenge into a less-strenuous, collaborative exchange of energy. While some students identify areas of opportunities inside and outside school, others can develop plans, and all can be a part of putting them into action. This cycle of information, advice, action, and reflection acts as a sound wave that spreads to all areas of the school community. Through collaboration with programs like NJHS, the National Honor Society (NHS), and National Student Council (NatStuCo), engagement effects real change. No task done well is too small. Once students assimilate this crucial piece of information, they participate more. And, since the collaborative roles rotate, every student will get the chance to engage in diverse ways.

Once the system is put into place, these questions follow: What are the issues we must target, and what can we do? Although there are specific issues pertaining to each community, taking action looks more or less the same for all of us.

So, how do we let the community know about our engagement? Theme-decorated bulletin boards, newsletters, morning announcements, videos, flyers, word-of-mouth, and social media are all great ways to communicate issues within and outside the school.

What actions can we take? Some activities include marches, art auctions, fund raising, drives (food, toys, blood donation), greeting cards with positive messages, kindness chains, lunch buddies, tutoring, writing letters or phone calls to politicians, special shirt days, peer mentoring, movie nights, and more. More project ideas can be found in the NASSP’s National Student Project Database.

Civic engagement is all about team effort, and it will empower students as well as foster a healthy social culture.

What does Global Citizenship look like at your school, and how do you promote civic engagement?

Melissa Arroyo is an NJHS adviser at The TASIS School in Dorado, Dorado, PR. She is a curriculum specialist who feels passionate about education, social justice, and empowering learners.