Salisbury University to Use Civic Reflection in First-Year Orientation

May 16 2018
Group discussion Planning group

Each summer, colleges and universities must provide some kind of orientation program for members of the incoming first-year class. A lot is riding on these programs, which give many students their first sustained impression of their chosen college and can affect student success and retention rates.

Salisbury University, a public university on Maryland’s eastern shore near Chesapeake Bay, will experiment with an innovative approach to the challenges of freshman orientation this summer, incorporating civic reflection conversations into the orientation of its entire first-year class of 1,300 students. As far as we are aware, Salisbury University is the first U.S. college or university to use civic reflection on such a large scale to facilitate new students’ transition to college life.

What motivated Salisbury faculty and administrators to turn to civic reflection? Assistant Professor of Education Sandy Pope, co-director of Salisbury’s Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement (PACE), explains that in prior years, the university assigned freshmen to read a book during the summer and arrive on campus ready to discuss it. But, Pope says, this approach to orientation, which Salisbury calls The First-Year Experience, had a serious drawback. Students had other priorities during the summer before beginning college than to read the assigned book, and many would show up on campus without having done their homework. “You don’t want a new student’s first experience of college to be arriving to class unprepared and unable to participate,” says Pope. “It was frustrating for faculty to prepare to lead these discussions only to have them fall flat, and dispiriting for the students too.” Dissatisfaction with the approach led faculty to think about alternatives.

Pope’s own introduction to civic reflection came through The Civically Engaged Reader, which he used in a course with Presidential Citizen Scholars, students in a program that prepares them to become community leaders. Pope was impressed with the anthology, finding that the readings launched lively discussions among students. The students’ enthusiasm led Pope to make contact with CCR founder Elizabeth Lynn and discuss holding a facilitation training workshop at Salisbury.

In September 2017, a Valparaiso University senior and two alumnae, all experienced civic reflection facilitators, led a facilitation workshop at Salisbury for 17 students affiliated with PACE, along with faculty and staff. Salisbury’s new student facilitators then led civic reflection conversations on and off campus throughout the 2017-2018 academic year. Among their campus roles was to co-lead discussions for an elective course called Democracy Across the Disciplines, part of an ongoing series offering a new interdisciplinary course each year co-taught by a rotating group of faculty from across the campus. Using texts they selected from The Civically Engaged Reader, pairs of students co-facilitated reflective conversations between each section of the course. The revised course incorporating civic reflection generated a great deal of enthusiasm among students—so much so, that faculty successfully pitched civic reflection to the administration as a fresh approach to first-year orientation.

The project of building reflective conversation into a key program attended by every first-year student “was ambitious and a huge undertaking,” notes Sarah Surak, PACE co-director and an associate professor of political science and environmental studies at Salisbury. Preparing the ground would require large numbers of faculty and students to be trained as civic reflection discussion leaders. And to accomplish that goal, trainers would be needed. In the spring of 2018, Pope and Surak approached the Center for Civic Reflection for a customized workshop to train five Salisbury faculty and staff, who in turn would train the approximately 150 facilitators to lead discussions during orientation.

On April 14, Pope, Surak, and three of their colleagues participated in a civic reflection Train-the-Trainer workshop at Valparaiso University’s Institute for Leadership and Service (ILaS). The day after being trained, the new trainers had a chance to practice their skills by co-leading a facilitation workshop attended by Valparaiso University students and staff. This summer the Salisbury team will train 70-75 faculty and staff, and an equal number of students, to co-facilitate civic reflection conversations with incoming students. Each conversation will be led by a faculty/staff-student pair, allowing the facilitators to model shared inquiry. Salisbury’s interim provost chose the theme for this year’s First-Year Experience: Knowledge and Uncertainty. The trainings at V.U. focused on visual and written texts with this theme.

Pope notes that civic reflection is appealing because it focuses on readings—short fiction, poems, prose excerpts—that are rich and open to multiple perspectives, yet short enough to read aloud. This gives everyone a common experience and an equal playing field for beginning the conversation. Civic reflection also appeals, says Pope, because it can foster civic engagement: “It can press toward civic activity and public action.”

Surak observes that in the State of Maryland generally, “there has been an uptick in interest in discussion of controversial issues.” Like faculty at other schools statewide, Salisbury faculty wanted to provide opportunities for such discussions. Faculty are particularly keen to help students develop skills in civic discourse,” Surak notes, because “they realize that we’re becoming increasingly polarized politically.” In addition, she notes that “faculty are interested in building a new pedagogical skill set,” and they see the benefits of civic reflection for improving their own skills as discussion leaders and teaching students “to ask good questions and think critically.”

Surak describes the Train-the-Trainer workshop as “intellectually enjoyable and practically useful.” It was helpful, she says, to be given sample agendas and pointed toward objects of reflection that fit the chosen theme.  It also was reassuring “to hear Elizabeth Lynn say that being nervous is normal, it’s part of the process. It doesn’t have to be perfect.” She adds, “I was pretty concerned about this, but I feel much better now.”

CCR and Valparaiso University wish Salisbury faculty, staff and students success with their innovative new program. We look forward to hearing about and sharing your experiences this summer!

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