CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE OF SOCIAL CAPITAL: HIGHER EDUCATION COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT AND CIVIC RENEWAL
Tate, Kristin Yerg
Civic health in the United States is in a state of distress. In 2000, Robert Putnam's seminal work on social capital and the state of civic engagement in the United States,Bowling Alone, painted a troubling picture, laden with undeniable statistical proof that Americans were more isolated and less engaged than they had been in decades past. Years later, the country has yet to turn the corner. We are less connected to one another, we participate less in associational life, and we increasingly lack trust in our institutions. Meanwhile, research continues to demonstrate that trust, connectivity, reciprocity and mutual effort are critical to addressing pressing social problems and building communities that thrive socially, politically and economically. Strategies that can address this growing gap are essential.This thesis argues that higher education community engagement programs are exactly this kind of strategy. When designed and implemented well, these programs can immediately strengthen social capital and lead to dramatic long-term changes in the civic skills, attitudes and behaviors of student participants. This thesis draws upon a growing body of research which demonstrates how community engagement participation impacts student participants in the short- and long-terms. My methodological approach has been to provide a snapshot of the field, to refine operating definitions of high-impact community engagement programs, and to weave together existing research with theoretical frameworks to make a more vivid case for the importance of this work.In the end, this thesis establishes that through participation in community engagement programs, students cultivate both bonding and bridging social capital, which allows them to perform better academically; to connect more with faculty and peers; and, to sharpen their emotional, moral and intellectual capacities. These skills and experiences translate into lifelong engagement through voting, serving as community leaders, donating money, volunteering, participating in associations, working for nonprofits, and engaging in other important civic roles. The whole of this effect is more than the sum of its parts: these lifelong behaviors have a collective impact with the potential to shift the landscape of social capital across the country. As the United States continues to grapple with an economic crisis and myriad complex and pressing social issues, the importance of this reconnection and transformation for students and graduates across the country cannot be understated. It is the foundation upon which a renewed state of civic health, connectivity and vibrancy will be built.
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