Feature Interview with Dr. Lynn Suydam, President of St. Louis Community College at Meramec

Elizabeth Larson-Keagy, PhD, Executive Editor
The Journal for Civic Commitment

Questions & Responses:

  1. Dr Suydam, as a national leader what advice, ideas or recommendations would you give to other presidents and chancellors to encourage them to integrate service learning and civic engagement into their campuses and classrooms?
    Four factors: student learning, building better citizens, closer ties to the communities we serve, and newly established accreditation standards come to mind when talking with others about the benefits of civic engagement and service learning. It has been demonstrated over and over that students who are involved in service learning in their classes are better students. They get better grades, participate in higher levels in their classes, and better understand the practical implications of their subject matter. These students are also learning the value of giving back to their community. They are sharing their learning and gaining greater insight into what it means to be a good citizen participating in the society in which they live. Establishing positive linkages with the communities we serve often provides valuable returns for institutions that support and encourage civic engagement and service learning. The community benefits significantly from the activities engaged in by staff and students and this goes a long way in raising the stature and image of the institution in the community. And finally, several of the national accrediting associations are adopting standards that indicate institutions should be engaged in service to their communities. The North Central Association’s new Criterion 5 – Engagement and Service states, ‘As called for by its mission, the organization identifies its constituencies and serves them in ways both value.’These are key factors to consider when making a determination on the direction of an institution with respect to civic engagement and service learning. 
  2. Dr. Suydam, in a letter to faculty at Meramec about service learning you stated that ‘In order to prepare our students to participate in and contribute to an increasingly complex and diverse society, we must provide living examples of situations our students may see and be a part of every day but lack the perspective to understand, to modify or to improve. Service Learning offers an instructional approach through which students can gain a better understanding of their environment and their roles in it.’ How have you supported your institution to address this statement?
    St. Louis Community College at Meramec has the good fortune to have a devoted and dedicated Coordinator of Service Learning, Donna Halsband. I have worked with her in the development of a total campus effort that focuses on civic engagement, volunteerism, community service and service learning. Through staff development activities, faculty summer projects and encouraging faculty to participate in service learning we have involved more than 30 faculty or 16% of our full-time faculty in service learning. The Good Neighbor Initiative is an initiative that invites faculty and staff to participate in community service activities such as food drives, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Race for the Cure, clothing drives, mentoring activities, environmental clean ups, and reading to elementary students in the area. In addition, we invite the student government and student clubs through the Office of Student Activities to participate in volunteerism and community service activities. Each club and student organization is encouraged to perform community service activities and share basic information on what they are doing. Student leadership activities are conducted in which students are trained as conveners and then conduct sessions with other student leaders that allow them to reflect on the value of civic engagement to them personally and their community. Students are also involved in lobbying activities at both the state and national level with teams sent from each campus each year. I have also scheduled a series of leadership breakfasts, which allow students to informally interact with community, government and business leaders. Whenever possible I participate in any of the activities I have shared with you to demonstrate my support and interest in these efforts. Similar kinds of activities are occurring at our Florissant Valley and Forest Park Campuses with equally dedicated Service Learning Coordinators. At Meramec we have a civic engagement effort that involves the whole institution: service learning in the academic sector, and volunteerism and community service in both theGood Neighbor Initiative and our co-curricular activities. We enlist any and all individuals who are interested in lending a helping hand.
  3. Dr. Suydam, of the service learning and civic engagement programs you offer, which one(s) do you feel is/are making the biggest contribution to community and students?
    Identifying the service learning and/or civic engagement activity that is making the largest contribution to the students and the community is hard to determine. Our program is expanding, and we are only just beginning to assess our efforts. However, with that being said, I believe the greatest impact is being had through our academic service learning activities. These activities are more structured and many sectors of the community are impacted. During the 2002-2003 academic year, Meramec involved over 875 students in 28 different classes in service learning. The resultant learning is hard to assess, but antidotal information indicates students were affected very positively. Expressing the impact in financial terms, using an estimate of $16.00 per student hour of volunteer time spent in volunteer activities, the return to the community was well over $100,000.
  4. Dr. Suydam, how do you feel that service learning and civic engagement meet the needs of the various accreditation guidelines and initiatives?
    St. Louis Community College is currently reviewing and updating its mission. The College has always been engaged in service to the community. The institution’s efforts in service learning and civic engagement only serve to broaden the institution’s efforts in this area. Thus, in keeping with its mission, service learning and civic engagement programs would be one of several ways an institution could address the ‘service’ criteria being developed by several of the nation’s accreditation associations. As I indicated in an earlier response, this is one of the reasons an institution might develop programs in civic engagement and service learning. But career programs with internships and cooperative education programs, industry training programs, social agency collaborations and allied health programs are some of the many other ways an institution might address the service and engagement criterion as well.
  5. Dr. Suydam, in your letter to faculty you wrote that service learning ‘awakens an awareness in our students that we must give back to our society and in doing so, they benefit in many ways.’ How would you describe some of the other benefits of giving back to one’s community?
    Participation in service learning and civic engagement programs may also identify possible career opportunities of which the student may not have otherwise been aware. Civic engagement and service learning programs often introduce students to public service careers and bring highly qualified students to these positions that improve and enhance the communities in which they live. When civic engagement and service learning programs are truly successful, students continue to be involved in their communities with a greater understanding of their role as a citizen and the value of that role to the community. This is a significant goal. The challenge is its accomplishment.
  6. Dr. Suydam, how have you personally been a ‘living example’ of service to the community and civic engagement?
    I think the role of a college president in civic engagement and service learning programs is to provide leadership and direction, motivate and encourage students, staff and faculty to participate in service learning, volunteerism and community service activities whenever possible. I personally have participated in reading programs at a local elementary school, participated in food and clothing drives, contributed to some of the community service and charitable agencies with which we work, and sponsored and conducted a series of student leadership breakfasts.
  7. Dr. Suydam, is there anything else that I haven’t asked you about that you would like to mention?
    As you can see from my response to your questions, I believe in the value of civic engagement and service learning programs for the student, faculty, the institutions, and the communities we serve. One other effort we are involved in at St. Louis Community College is exploring the development of a Center for Civic Engagement and Citizenship. A committee has been formed of history and political science instructors, service learning coordinators and continuing education representatives from our three campuses. We welcome suggestions and input on how to design and implement such a center. Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts on civic engagement and service learning with your readers.

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.