Understanding How to Empower Citizen Leaders


Students in social science methods course investigate perceptions of civic engagement at Washington College and make recommendations to improve a culture of involvement. 

Claire Garretson '24 speaks during a presentation of students' findings regarding perceptions of civic engagement on campus.

Claire Garretson '25 speaks during a presentation of students' findings regarding perceptions of civic engagement on campus.

Civic engagement is at the core of Washington College’s mission, which “challenges and inspires emerging citizen leaders to discover lives of purpose and passion.” But what is civic engagement? And is the College enabling students to participate in their community effectively? Students enrolled in the Qualitative and Descriptive Methods in Social Science course this semester sought to find out. 

Co-taught by Meghan Grosse and Sara Clarke-De Reza — chairs of the communication and media studies and education departments, respectively — the course taught students research methods they used to answer this central question: How do Washington College students understand and experience civic engagement? 

Following a semester-long research project — which included website content analysis, campus-wide surveys, and student interviews — students presented their findings, as well as recommendations for College and community improvements, Thursday, May 2. This was the second cohort of students engaged in answering that central question, and the new data and analysis they collected this year will the added to student findings from last year’s course. 

During the presentation, Clarke-De Reza defined civic engagement as “working to make a difference in the civic life of a community and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values, and motivations to make that difference.” 

Throughout the semester, students analyzed 133 stories published on the Washington College website in the news and stories section from January 2022 through December 2023 to see how the institution itself talks about civic engagement practices. 

The average number of stories containing one of the civic engagement measures in 2023 was 4.55 per month, up from 3.16 per month in 2022. The most seen civic engagement behavior in those stories was civic mindedness, while the least observed were philanthropy/fundraising and political engagement. While the College showed some improvement in representing civic engagement in stories, the group recommended integrating the language of civic engagement into news stories when relevant and adding a civic engagement filter to that search bar. 

The campus-wide survey was sent out over a three-week period and elicited 293 responses — about a third of the student body. The data was used to gauge general attitudes about civic engagement and students’ club involvement. 

While 71% of respondents were aware civic engagement is part of the College’s mission, about 15% said they did not know if they agreed it should be, and about half did not know if the College was meeting that mission. When asked what they considered to be community, more students thought first of their hometown, then Chestertown, then the College. The group recommended making civic engagement opportunities and other community-building events visible by promoting them on social media and continue to strengthen the relationship between the College and town. 

The survey also observed a link between involvement in clubs and organizations and civic participation, with 88% of respondents indicating they are involved in at least one club or organization. Of those respondents, the overwhelming majority indicated their participation in those groups has prepared them to civically engage, has provided opportunities to do so, and that the groups they participate in make a difference. Recommendations included the continued support of the formation in and activities of clubs and organizations on campus and increased facilitation of civic participation between student organizations and the Chestertown community. 

Over the same three-week period the survey was conducted, students also completed 87 different semi-structured interviews. That data was used to gauge student perceptions of civic engagement as it relates to various majors, volunteerism, and the Chestertown community. 

Interviewees indicated the most engaged majors were political science, education studies, communication and media studies, environmental science and studies, psychology, sociology, and business management. The least engaged majors were perceived to be mathematics, business management, those in the natural sciences division, those in the department of world languages and cultures, English, computer science, theatre, and art. Students in those majors indicated there were little to no opportunities for civic engagement within the major and it is not included in the coursework. Those majors that are civically engaged have opportunities through internships, community involvement, extra credit, and visiting speakers. The group recommended creating and communicating opportunities for engagement across disciplines and having majors come together to create interdisciplinary opportunities for civic engagement.

The vast majority of interviewees said they volunteered in high school, while just over half indicated they have volunteered while at Washington. The group noted that students do more volunteer work when provided with an incentive. They recommended providing service hours or other incentives so students are more inclined to participate in volunteering events. They suggested involving professors in those engagement events and having consistent subject lines for event emails or creating an Instagram page dedicated to event opportunities would increase volunteerism.  
The final category focused on student perceptions of and comfort within Chestertown. Interview responses indicated that students feel welcome in some parts of Chestertown, but do not feel engaged because of time constraints, feeling unwanted, and a lack of information about opportunities. The group recommended finding better avenues for students to hear about those opportunities and establishing an area equally accessible and welcoming to students and the surrounding community.  
While this section of the course has finished, the project is ongoing.  

— MacKenzie Brady '21