The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) has recognized Illinois State University with the organization’s 2021 Excellence and Innovation Award for Civic Learning and Community Engagement. This national award highlights the University’s ongoing efforts to further its core value of civic engagement.
“As a core value of Illinois State University, civic engagement is an integral part of our curriculum and our overall campus ethos,” said Illinois State President Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy. “This award from AASCU recognizes that students, faculty, and staff live out that core value in their involvement and work on campus, in the local community, and at the state, national, and international levels. That emphasis on civic engagement is helping to develop the leaders of today and tomorrow.”
The AASCU award recognizes Illinois State primarily for the work done through the University’s Center for Civic Engagement. The center supports the institution’s core value of civic engagement by encouraging students to be engaged and educated citizens in partnership with the community.
“This is such a well-deserved award,” said Associate Provost Dr. Ani Yazedjian. “I am not surprised that the center was recognized. Center staff members have been doing great work all along, but really stepped up over the last year and a half. The pandemic would have provided an easy excuse to put their efforts on hold, but they continued to innovate and work diligently to give students the opportunity to have meaningful opportunities for engagement during a very difficult time and while facing many constraints. I’m proud to be associated with them and the terrific work they are doing for Illinois State University.”
To reflect the University’s understanding that civic engagement is not isolated to one part of the student experience, the center reports to both Yazedjian in the Division of Academic Affairs and Dr. John Davenport in the Division of Student Affairs.
“Receiving this award is a tangible demonstration of the successful alignment of mission, vision, and values in effectively promoting the democratic ideal at Illinois State,” said Davenport, assistant vice president and dean of students. “Our role in higher education is to prepare students for a role in the global community. Educating students on the why, how, and when of civic engagement is a foundational step in learning to become active participants in the process of governance. This award also demonstrates the great things that can be accomplished when student affairs, academic affairs, and the community work together.”
Over the past year, center staff collaborated with partners across the campus and community to establish a vision for the future. Together they developed a strategic plan that highlighted priorities for enhancing student civic engagement and advancing the institution’s commitment to its public purpose.
A key initiative in the last year was to elevate civic education and political engagement. The center launched a new Deliberative Dialogues Program and conducted 100 different Dialogues with more than 925 students, faculty, staff, and community members.
Through work with the center’s campus-wide Voter Engagement Coalition, the campus also had a fall 2020 voter turnout of around 71%, with 1,102 students utilizing TurboVote and 1,700 people using campus polling places to vote early.
In addition to existing programs, in late 2020 center staff worked with Voter Engagement Coalition members to create the Voter Restoration Initiative. This initiative broadened the concept of voter restoration by highlighting the histories and resilience of minoritized communities who have resisted oppression and worked for voting rights.
The center also launched a new Exploring Wicked Problems Series in 2021 to create opportunities for in-depth exploration of complex social issues, offering programs to campus and community members.
“This award recognizes universities that prioritize, institutionalize, and advance civic learning and community engagement,” said Dr. Katy Strzepek, the center’s director. “I am thrilled that AASCU recognized our collaborative efforts to center equity and the co-creation of knowledge. We will continue our work to support the public purpose of higher education to transform the lives of students and communities by creating mutually beneficial partnerships and civic learning opportunities.”
Harriett Steinbach, assistant director, oversees the center’s civic education and political engagement programming and works to foster campus-community partnerships. She also directed center staff through the early stages of creation of the center’s new strategic plan.
“I am immensely proud of the work and growth we have seen as a center over the last couple of years,” said Steinbach. “This award is such an honor because not only does it elevate our efforts to date, but it also positions Illinois State University as a leader in civic engagement within higher education. We are truly laying a foundation that other institutions can look to as they build their own programs.”