Programs, faculty and students converge to make the university a leader in civic engagement – and alumni keep it going.

The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement has heralded CSU Monterey Bay as a model for preparing students to become engaged and socially responsible citizens. This federal task force composed of civic and higher education leaders has diagnosed the United States with anemic civic health, pointing to low voter turnout, poor civic knowledge among high school and college students, and civic apathy among the population.

In a report called “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” the group calls upon U.S. colleges and universities to advance civic learning and democratic engagement. They point to CSU Monterey Bay as an institution that has tackled this challenge.

In January, President Dianne F. Harrison joined other leaders in higher education, policy makers and stakeholders in Washington for the White House Convening on Civic Learning. The purpose was to discuss ways to weave civic learning and democratic engagement throughout K-12 and college education.

Educators nationwide are eager to follow the university’s lead as they tackle the vexing challenge of increasing civic knowledge and responsibility.

Read about Zac Walker's Capstone that incorporated math and service learning to engage local youth. 

At CSU Monterey Bay, education toward democratic engagement starts with service learning, which the university requires of both lower- and upper-division students in every major. The Service Learning Institute coordinates this work and helps all faculty develop courses that support civic literacy from a relevant disciplinary perspective. Their focus is not merely on hours of service and the completion of projects, but also on creating discourse about justice and social responsibility across campus.


“We push them to talk about policy and get into the debate,” said Dr. Seth Pollack, the institute’s director. “Not that there is an easy answer. But we encourage them to become a part of the process and to act on the issues they care about.”

Senior Christopher Sakamoto is one student who became engaged through his service learning class, but wound up going above and beyond the basic course requirements because the class ignited a deeper passion. The Teledramatic Arts and Technology major selected Monterey County’s juvenile hall for his service learning placement out of a sense of responsibility to his hometown, Salinas, and the feeling that he could make a positive contribution. “We were dealing with kids who are considered the worst of the worst – murderers and attempted murderers. But take note that they were really kids, 15 or 16 years old.”

Chris and his class partner, Kayla Strasser, decided to create a documentary that illustrates the experience of incarcerated young men who spend over 18 hours per day alone in their cells. This project was slated to last six weeks, but Chris wound up visiting juvenile hall for 14 weeks, in part to complete the interviews and also because of the positive mentoring relationships he developed with the young convicts. “It just felt good,” he said.

Long after the class ended, Chris is still working with officials at juvenile hall to finish an edited version that can be shown publicly. He hopes the resulting film will illustrate a more faceted story about the issues facing young people in Salinas than the public sees in news reports. His ideal audience would be middle schoolers. “I think showing it to that age group could have a big impact on the choices they make,” he said.

Chris also screened a rough cut of the film as part of the Service Learning Institute’s “Social Justice…Not Just Us” film series. Following the screening, the audience participated in a discussion of the criminal justice system in our nation.

This illustrates the way student engagement begins with the service learning class experience, but often expands to continued discussion at multiple levels across campus and an on-going commitment on the student’s part. Though Chris will graduate this May, he is in talks with the TAT department to participate as an instructor in the Imagine College summer outreach program, sponsored by the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program, teaching introductory filmmaking classes to high school students.


The civic engagement sparked through service learning on campus and in the community leads to long-term outcomes that manifest in CSUMB alumni – another factor that impressed the national task force. CSUMB graduates display an ongoing commitment to participating in the public sphere – whether through a lifetime of volunteer service, a career in government or nonprofits, or simply by participating thoughtfully and respectfully in public dialogue around issues that affect communities on the local, state, national and international levels.

Take Vincent Delgado, for an example. This 2010 graduate of the Social and Behavioral Sciences department now works at Safe Place in Monterey, running programs for runaway and homeless youth, and overseeing the service placements of several current CSUMB students.

“Our main strategy is to strike up positive, mentoring relationships and try to get the youth engaged in constructive activities that also teach them skills – things like how to cook, how to work in a team,” Delgado said. “That positive engagement then translates into the streets.”

When he transferred to CSUMB from a community college in Los Angeles, Delgado didn’t have a specific career path in mind. His service learning placement at Walter Colton Middle School, where he supported the school counselor and had his own caseload of eight students, helped him recognize his affinity for working with troubled youth.

As a friend and mentor to homeless youth, he has worked to foster positive relationships among local business owners, the county and the youth. One project, called National Safe Place, engages businesses and other agencies as resources.

“If a youth is in crisis after we close at 6, they can go into a place like East Village (coffee house), sit down, have a cup of coffee and get a snack, chill out and call our 800 hotline to access additional services,” Delgado said.

Service learners at CSU Monterey Bay have assisted with this outreach message, providing information to businesses about Safe Place and its mission and enlisting their support.


Much of the civic engagement at the university involves youth outreach, but there are other examples as well. This tax season, for instance, business students partnered with the Internal Revenue Service and United Way of Monterey County to provide free tax-preparation assistance to individuals and families who earned less than $50,000 in 2011.

The previous year, 20 students volunteered at eight county locations and helped taxpayers claim $1 million in refunds, said Professor Cathy Ku, who spearheads the project on campus.

On another part of campus, students from the School of Information Technology & Communication Design joined other area college and university students and software engineers to develop mobile-device applications for businesses, government agencies and nonprofits through an intensive coding competition called “The Ideas of March.” In the end, all the “app” code will be posted on the Internet so anyone can use and adapt it.

Such initiatives, in service learning courses and beyond, are what make CSU Monterey Bay a model of civically inspired learning for other universities, said President Dianne Harrison.

“Our students, staff and faculty engage. They ask tough questions, think critically, discuss, reframe and seek solutions,” Dr. Harrison said. “They bring their knowledge and experience to bear.”