Wayne L Firestone.
By Wayne L. Firestone
As published in The Jewish Week
It’s fall. The geese are heading south for winter. Alumni and students are celebrating the football ritual known as “homecoming.”
Higher education is all about journeys and homecomings. Each individual student is on a journey of growth. And, increasingly, that growth is taking place off campus. This, the largest freshman class in history, is more likely than any previous generation to spend a great deal of its time learning outside the classroom. As parents and educators we are challenged to ensure that their “homecoming” honors and fosters their growth.
A confluence of factors is pushing experiential education to the top of the campus agenda. Not only are more and more students participating in volunteer activities, but universities are actively encouraging students to participate in service-learning and travel opportunities.
Consider the following:
- The number of U.S. students studying abroad has more than doubled in the last decade;
- Campus Compact, the first higher education association dedicated to advancing civic and community engagement, doubled its membership between 1996 and 2006 to 1045. In 2006, the annual value of service performed by students at member schools surpassed $5 billion;
- The federal government’s Corporation for National and Community Service estimates that the number of college students volunteering grew from 2.7 million in 2002 to 3.3 million in 2005. In 2005, approximately 30 percent of college students volunteered, surpassing the volunteer rate for the general adult population.
The growth in voluntarism and service-learning is not accidental. Members of this millennial generation were required to do community service by their high schools and they were encouraged to do so by college admissions offices. They arrive on campus with an unprecedented openness to civic engagement beyond the classroom.
Many colleges and universities are taking note of this trend and some are revisiting their curricula in an attempt to focus on character and citizenship development. Students are asked to apply their classroom studies to the real world through service-learning opportunities at home and abroad where objective knowledge can meet subjective experience. By the time they graduate they should have the tools to explore not just what they do, but who they are.
Jewish organizations are at the forefront of this phenomenon. Students can watch the sun rise over Masada through Taglit-birthright israel. They can muck out a home on the Gulf Coast on an alternative break trip sponsored by the UJA-Federation of New York or United Jewish Communities. They can teach children in Latin America with the American Jewish World Service. Each of these experiences is inherently powerful. When it is accompanied by a Jewish learning component, each experience becomes Jewishly meaningful and an enduring Jewish memory.
Now that experiential learning is becoming an integral part of the fabric of the university, our challenge is not so much the journey as the homecoming.
How do we build upon these remarkable, extraordinary experiences on the unremarkable, ordinary campus or in the community? Can we realistically expect to deliver a revelatory “Sinai” experience every week of the year? Jewish organizations are challenged to find ways to integrate these young people when they have returned from their journeys, while providing them with continued opportunities to both serve their communities and explore life’s bigger questions.
In this regard, the reactions of participants in the second year of an 11-campus pilot partnership between Hillel-Taglit and birthright israel have illuminated the potential of pre-trip and post-trip activity. At Northwestern University, students created a semester-long “18” campaign celebrating life through a Jewish cultural arts series and partnering with Dance Marathon, the latter benefiting pediatric health care. At the University of California San Diego, the newly formed Jewish Organization for Persians and Americans (JOPA) launched weekly Jewish study breakfast meetings and campus-wide multicultural events that promote Jewish pride and diversity. And at UCLA, Rabbi Dan Smokler (a founder of “Jews in the Woods” while a student leader at Yale) helps alternate-break and Taglit-birthright israel returnees organize self-sustaining “learning communities.” Informed by contemporary as well as traditional texts, students continue to learn and socialize with their peers, and focus on issues ranging from personal and family relationships to study and work anxieties.
By responding to students’ desire for post-trip connections to Jewish life and learning (if not necessarily Jewish organizational affiliation), we can leverage their enthusiasm, complement the universities’ offerings, and even enhance the campus’s appeal to future applicants. Educators must focus not just on creating meaningful Jewish journeys, but on fulfilling homecomings as well.
Wayne Firestone is president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.