Wagner College: Establishing Positive Links between Civic Engagement and Student Well-Being

By Anne Goodsell Love, associate provost for assessment, Wagner College

The Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts was established in 1998, and since then all undergraduate students at Wagner College have been “learning by doing” in and out of the classroom. In the First-Year Program, each Wagner student enrolls in a learning community comprised of three courses taught by two faculty members from different disciplines and, taking advantage of Wagner’s location in New York City, each learning community links the course content with an experiential component that consists of service learning, field-based learning, or a combination of both. The integrated theme of the learning community is threaded throughout all three courses, and in at least one of the courses, the Reflective Tutorial, students reflect on their experiences through intensive writing and discussion. In the Senior Learning Community, students return to a similar model: two courses in their major that are thematically linked and include an in-depth experiential learning component (internship; practicum; research project; clinical placement) and, again, a Reflective Tutorial.

Examples of experiential components in the First-Year Program that are considered service or civically-engaged include tutoring in after-school programs, teaching English to adult immigrants, working with social service agencies, and engaging in public advocacy. Examples of experiential components that are considered field-based include trips to museums, concerts, businesses and other sites; walking tours of different neighborhoods in NYC; and field research. Some learning communities combine both approaches, having students take tours or go to museums and then engage with the community via a school or agency.

With a demonstration grant from BTtoP, Wagner conducted research during the 2010-2012 academic years to examine the relationships among civic engagement, experiential learning, and student well-being (Keyes 2009). Students and faculty in the First-Year Program completed questionnaires each year about their experiences; these data also were linked to information about student retention. Although levels of well-being were fairly high for most students, analysis of the student data showed that service learning and student well-being were related positively. Students in learning communities that were engaged with service learning (some or all of their off-campus experiences were service or civically engaged) reported higher levels of social, emotional, and psychological well-being than students in learning communities that were engaged primarily in field-based learning or field trips.

Analysis next turned to the faculty data for approaches to service learning that were different from approaches to field-based learning. Students engaged in service learning had higher levels of “faculty-student-site connection” than students primarily engaged in field trips. “Faculty-student-site connection” was composed of four factors from the faculty surveys:

  • faculty communication with the site
  • orientation to experiential learning by faculty
  • orientation to experiential learning by the site
  • faculty accompanying students to the site

Higher levels of engagement initiated by the faculty members with the experiential learning site(s) and the students were positively related to higher levels of student well-being. In addition, students reporting higher levels of well-being also reported higher levels of connection between the experiential learning and the Reflective Tutorial course. In other words, increased levels of communication and connection—among faculty members, community partners, and students—about the civic/service experiences and the courses were associated with increased well-being.

There were no differences in first-year retention according to the type of experiential learning, and there were no differences in first-year retention according to the degree to which faculty accompanied students to the experiential learning sites.

To illustrate these findings and to highlight the civically-engaged experiential learning being done in the Port Richmond neighborhood close to campus, brief profiles of students and faculty were displayed on campus and posted on the web at wagner.edu/assessment. The profiles summarized the research results with two taglines:

  • Students + Community = Growth for both; and
  • Faculty + Community = Flourishing Students

These results reinforce the design of the Wagner Plan with its emphasis on experiential learning and especially service and civic experiences that explicitly connect students with communities off campus. Quality service-learning experiences reflect a balanced reciprocal relationship among the students, faculty members, and community partners. While the development of these types of partnerships between faculty members and community leaders may require additional time and logistical considerations on the part of faculty members, and additional coordination and support by administrators, the outcomes include benefits to students and community members.

Keyes, C. L. M. 2009. “Brief description of the mental health continuum short form (MHCSF).” Accessed at this link.