Galvanizing Tomorrow’s Civic Leaders: A Reflection on DUGC Student Scholars

By: Katie Kleinhesselink, Associate Director, CCESL

When I realized back in July 2020 that the coming academic year would take place almost completely online, I panicked. DU Grand Challenges (DUGC) had received a generous grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations just a few months before to boldly scaffold our undergraduate programs, especially DUGC Student Scholars. If you’re unfamiliar, DUGC Student Scholars is a public identity development program that incorporates community engagement, near-peer mentorship, and personal/professional development. Our focus is helping students to figure out who they are in community, what sorts of public good work they want to do, and how they can tie those back with their academic pursuits to be actors for the public good not just now, but for the rest of their lives.

I couldn’t conceive of how to operate a program with goals that audacious in an online environment, let alone grow it. But we did. In fact, participation in DUGC Student Scholars grew by almost 300 percent, from 24 students in AY 19-20 to 95 students in AY 20-21. Why? The answer has less to do, I think, with recruitment strategies and program delivery and everything to do with students awakening to their own agency and power to dismantle oppressive and racist systems and advance social change. As we all navigated (and continue to navigate) the strange social nexus between twin pandemics of COVID and gross racial injustice, so many students shared with me their despair, outrage, heartbreak, and exhaustion. They wanted—they needed—to do something. And for many, Scholars provided the support and resources they required to act.

At CCESL, we talk A LOT about critical reflection—the ability to translate experience into learning and action. We teach it in our workshops on community-engaged learning, we preach it in our literature. And quite frankly, I think that’s why DUGC Student Scholars and our other undergraduate programs were so successful this year. Students have embraced critical reflection as a tool to both survive and thrive in a world that often feels caustic and dangerous. They’re doing it of their own accord because it’s a process of realizing hope, of taking reality and saying I choose something different for my future.

And so I’m deeply thankful to the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations for making DUGC Student Scholars possible not just through their generous financial support, but through their belief and trust in undergraduate students as stewards and leaders of a new and better future for us all. As we move into the coming academic year, I feel renewed optimism, and I look forward to working alongside my DUGC Student Scholar colleagues to make that future the now.

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