Implementing Civic Engagement Activities in the Rio Grande Valley

Leland M. Coxe
University of Texas at Brownsville, USA


A perception of decreased interest in public affairs by younger people has directed academic attention towards the topics of social capital, civic engagement, and student voting. Service learning has been proposed as a pedagogical technique that fosters civic engagement and thereby builds social capital and increases the likelihood of voting. The efforts of the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College (UTB-TSC) offers an opportunity to observe implementation of many of the concepts and proposals discussed and recommended in the academic literature at a university which has a predominantly Hispanic student body. The initiatives of the CCE have included encouraging faculty to adopt service learning as a pedagogical technique and leading Project 100%, a coordinated effort among faculty, administration, and staff to increase voter turnout.

Examining the implementation of civic engagement programs for UTB-TSC may offer insights into the effectiveness of these techniques for promoting civic engagement and increasing voter turnout.


Civic Engagement has been a topic of academic interest for some time now, and a major stimulus for this attention has been a perception of decreased interest in public affairs by younger people indicated by low voter turnouts and tests of political knowledge. Responses have included an array of measures to increase student interest in civic affairs in hopes of building social capital and increasing voter turnout. The surge in first-time voters for the 2004 and 2008 elections may indicate that these efforts have had some impact (Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2011).

The CCE at UTB-TSC has made a concerted effort over the last several years to increase interest in civic and political affairs among students and the larger community, and thus offers an opportunity to observe implementation of many of the concepts and proposals discussed and recommended in the academic literature. The CCE has attempted to increase awareness and activism regarding the community’s pressing social and economic challenges by sponsoring civic events and encouraging faculty to adopt service learning as a pedagogical technique. Attempts to increase interest in elections have coalesced into Project 100%, a coordinated effort among faculty, administration, and staff to increase voter turnout. The observable impacts of these endeavors include achievement of the designation of a Community Engaged Institution from the Carnegie Foundation in 2011 (UTB-TSC, 2011) and the placement of an early voting station on the UTB-TSC campus.

Examining the efforts of the CCE offers an opportunity to review the findings and expectations of the academic literature against actual events and developments for a university with a predominantly Hispanic student body. Proceeding requires background information on the challenges of the Rio Grande Valley plus a review of the academic literature on civic engagement, social capital, service learning, and voting behavior for students and Hispanics. The insights provided by this examination may offer advice on implementation of civic engagement programs.

The Challenges of the Rio Grande Valley

The UTB-TSC community faces numerous challenges related to poverty and low income. The campus is located only blocks from the border crossing with Mexico, and many students, faculty, and staff regularly go back and forth between Brownsville and the neighboring City of Matamoros. Brownsville is among the poorest communities in the United States with a median household income noticeably below that of the State of Texas and the United States. This data from the US Census Bureau illustrates (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011):



Median Household Income

Median Per Capita Income

Population Below Poverty

Brownsville, 2009

$29, 929



Texas, 2009

$48, 199



USA, 2009

$51, 425



The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) has partnered with Texas Southmost College (TSC) to provide the combined services of a community college and a degree-granting university since 1991. The TSC Board of Trustees voted to dissolve the partnership in 2011, and the separation of the two institutions is in progress. UTB-TSC is primarily a commuter school with open enrollment and had a total of 13,836 students (47% full-time, 53% part-time; excluding dual enrollment) for the Spring Semester of 2011. Ninety-three percent (93%) of the student body is Hispanic, and the mean age of students is 25 (UTB- TSC Fast Facts, 2012). Many students are the first members of their family to attend college. The Brownsville Early College High School (BECHS) program allows for dual-enrollment of college-ready youth. There are several programs to assist students in the transition to college including the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) and A Support Program in Reaching Excellence (ASPIRE).

Cameron County has historically had below average voter turnout for elections, a matter that makes it easy for candidates running for statewide office to pay little attention to the area. Comparison to the State of Texas as a whole is illustrated below (Office of the Texas Secretary of State, 2011):

Turnout – Cameron County and Texas


Cameron County

State of Texas

2006 U.S. Senate/Midterm



2008 Presidential



2010 Gubernatorial/Midterm



Social Capital and Civic Engagement

The challenges of the Rio Grande Valley bring up the concept of social capital, one description of which is “… aspects of the network structure-such as social norms and sanctions, mutual obligations, trust, and information transmission that encourage collaboration and coordination between friends and between strangers” (Costa and Kahn, 2003). The term social capital implies an expectation that enhanced social bonds will facilitate productive interaction that can contribute to economic development and enhance political power.

Fukuyama (1995) observed the difficulty of operationalizing this concept for research purposes, and it does not appear that an accepted methodology for measuring social capital has emerged.

Civic engagement is seen as a mechanism for building social capital, and has experienced similar difficulties in achieving conceptual clarity. Adler and Goggin (2005) note the difficulties of defining civic engagement as a term and observe that the variations tend to reflect the perspective and interests of the person presenting the definition. Erlich (2000) defines civic engagement as “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.” Particularly noticeable is that Erlich’s definition does not treat civic and political behavior as discrete matters requiring separate consideration. This is consistent with Putnam’s (2000) model of civic engagement, which points to social capital as the bridge between civic involvement and political activities such as voting. Macedo (2005) also argues that the civic and political arenas are linked and that increased involvement in civic affairs will contribute to higher voter turnouts.

The linkage of community involvement and political activity via social capital has been challenged. Newman (2011) questions that increased involvement in civic affairs will automatically convert to higher voting turnouts when the barriers between the civic and political spheres identified by Eliasoph (1998) are taken into account. Dalton (2008) argues that alarm regarding a lack of interest in civic and political matters by younger people is exaggerated and points to a difference in norms between the GI Generation and its successors.

While those who came of age during the Depression and World War II saw citizenship in terms of duties such as voting, those born in more recent decades are inclined towards more direct approaches such as “working with collective groups, boycotts or contentious actions.” Dalton also notes that the techniques used to measure citizen engagement are geared towards the duty-based view of the GI Generation and thereby overlook the activities of younger people. The point these writers appear to be making is that participation in community activities such as Neighborhood Watch, assisting the needy through religious organizations, and cleaning up the environment through a nonprofit does not automatically convert to a greater likelihood of voting in the next election.

Another complication regarding the concept of social capital is that it may conflict with efforts to recognize increased diversity. Civic activities frequently take place in self-selected groups, and this is affected by the human tendency to associate with those sharing similar backgrounds, interests, values, and attitudes. Costa and Kahn (2003) note that common values, experiences, and identity reduce the costs of engaging in group activity, but this process of self-selection also tends to exclude those of different backgrounds and values (Theiss and Hibbing, 2005).

Voting Procedures, Civic Education, and Student Turnout

Niemi, et al. (2009) note that registration and voting procedures can impact voter turnout and this directs attention to the voting process in relation to the CCE’s efforts to increase student voting at UTB-TSC. Texas law requires students attending college away from their “home” to choose between voting at their regular residence by absentee ballot or their current residence at the location of the university (Office of the Texas Secretary of State, 2011). Some communities have experienced conflicts regarding college students voting in locations in which they are seen as temporary residents, but such conflicts are minimal for UTB-TSC since relatively few students are from outside of Cameron County. Texas allows for early voting at sites more convenient than one’s

designated “home” voting station. Selection of the early voting sites is at the discretion of the County Registrar of Voters, and an early voting station was placed on the UTB-TSC campus in response to the CCE’s argument that this was the optimal location to facilitate voter turnout for the community. Retention of an early voting site requires satisfying the expectation of the County Registrar of Voters that “enough” votes are being cast at that location (Father Armand Mathew, personal communication, 8-10-11).

Fowler (2006) points out that the act of voting for an individual in a large population appears to contradict rational choice theory as it has substantial costs (time and effort to register and learn about candidates plus transportation to and from voting sites), and the person’s vote is unlikely to be a deciding factor in the electoral outcome. This implies that reducing the costs of voting in terms of the time and effort required to cast a ballot may increase the likelihood of voting.

Gerber et al. (2003) depict voting as a habitual behavior that responds to reinforcement, and this is consistent with the earlier findings of Burgess et al. (2000). Both of these analyses support the establishment of the early voting station on the UTB-TSC campus as the time and effort required for students to vote is reduced, thereby contributing to development of the voting habit.

A positive relationship has been observed between years of education completed and the likelihood of voting, and the dynamics of the interaction of these factors may offer insight for enhancing voting prevalence among students. One explanation of the relationship between education and likelihood of voting is offered by the civic education model, which holds that additional education provides the skills and motivation for political engagement and thereby builds social capital and increases the likelihood of voting. The civic education model is consistent with the observation that young people are more likely to become involved with their community when there are issues they see as relating to their lives, and such engagement can be expected to develop skills and build confidence that may contribute to increased participation in the political process (Feldman et al., 2007). Alternatives to the civic education model point to self- selection in educational choice and counter that the relationship between education and voting behavior is spurious (Tenn 2007). An important caveat is pointed out by Niemi and Hanmer (2010), who observe that traditional demographic-based models of voter turnout are of limited application to college students whose lives are in a state of flux regarding education level, labor force status, residence, and family status.

Empirical testing of the civic education model has been inconclusive. Tenn (2007) found that one additional year of education had little immediate impact on voting behavior while Hillygus’ (2005) analysis of SAT scores and political engagement found modest support for the civic education model. One possibility implied by these somewhat conflicting findings is that while there may not be a dramatic and immediately observable impact on an individual’s behavior, it is plausible that increased levels of education have a long-term influence on the likelihood of voting.

Since the UTB-TSC student body is predominantly Hispanic, examination of voting behavior for this group can provide insight regarding efforts to increase voter turnout. Barreto et al. (2005) noted that turnout for Hispanics is consistently lower than Anglos or African-Americans and suggest that the presence of Hispanic candidates on the ballot increases Latino turnout in Los Angeles. The elections for state and local positions in Brownsville and Cameron County routinely include a number of Hispanic candidates, so this does not appear to be a problem for efforts to increase student voting at UTB-TSC. Arvizu and Garcia (1996) noted that an important limitation of the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” is that a large, diverse group is being lumped together into a single category for analysis. When divided into subgroups (Mexican-Americans, Puerto Rican, Cuban-Americans, and Central and South Americans), very different patterns can emerge regarding education levels, income, turnout, and political affiliation.

Another important observation is that Hispanics appear to be emerging as a “swing voter” constituency. While Hispanic voters have tended to favor Democratic candidates over Republicans, this tendency varies among candidates, issues, and elections. Ronald Reagan famously commented that, “Latinos are Republicans, they just don’t know it yet,” and George W. Bush carried an estimated 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2004 (Taylor and Frye, 2007). The GOP carried 38% of the Hispanic vote nationally in the 2010 midterm elections with Republican Rick Perry taking 38% of the Hispanic vote as he was reelected Governor of Texas (Smith, 2010). This points out that efforts to increase voter turnout among Hispanics should not be depicted as a partisan effort on behalf of the Democratic Party, but rather as a nonpartisan attempt to enhance political engagement.

Service Learning and Civic Engagement

Service Learning refers to experiential learning that addresses the needs of both individuals and the larger community as part of a structured learning process which includes reflection by the student relating the activity to the coursework (Hunter & Brisbin 2000; Galston 2001; Morgan & Streb, 2001).

Advocates of service learning claim this approach develops critical thinking skills, facilitates integration of theory with practice, and promotes civic engagement, but Reinke (2003) notes that analysis of empirical evidence has shown only modest results. Hunter and Brisbin (2000) note that students tend to react positively to service learning, but point out that this does not necessarily mean that all of the benefits claimed by advocates fully materialize. While most of the attention for service learning has focused on undergraduate education, there have been attempts to gauge its impact on students enrolled in Master of Public Administration courses (Reinke, 2003) and nursing students (Nokes et al., 2005) with inconclusive results.

Encouraging and rewarding faculty for adopting service learning has been a major emphasis for the CCE at UTB-TSC. This effort has included providing faculty development programs plus recognition of the activity and achievements of faculty and students in raising awareness of community needs. The faculty development program features an online training program that provides certification in service learning techniques. Faculty certified in service learning become eligible for the Scholarship of Civic Engagement (SOCE) grant to cover the costs of conducting service learning or for conference presentations related to civic engagement. Recognition for faculty who successfully incorporate service learning into their courses includes an awards ceremony plus a “Faculty Focus” spotlight on the University website. The impact of these measures can be observed as the percent of faculty offering service learning courses increased from 16% in the Fall Semester of 2009 to 34% for the Fall Semester of 2010. The percentage of students enrolled in courses offering service learning increased from 26% for the Fall of 2009 to 62% for the Fall of 2010. (Kathy Bussert -Webb, Director for the UTB-TSC Center for Civic Engagement 2010-11, e-mail dated 4- 13-11). A procedure has been adopted to officially designate particular courses as service learning classes, and for the Fall of 2011 a total of 271 courses were designated as service learning classes. This figure does not include all classes that incorporate some components of service learning. (Shamina Davis, Director for the UTB-TSC Center for Civic Engagement 2011- present, e-mail dated 2-6-12).

The Center for Civic Engagement and Project 100%

The CCE was founded in 2004 by Father Armand Mathew, a Roman Catholic priest of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI). The mission of the CCE is “…to create an engaged campus that connects faculty, staff, students (with an emphasis on first year students), and external partners in ways that help revitalize our community” (UTB-TSC Center for Civic Engagement). Advocating a “trickle up” approach to civic engagement, Father Armand had previously established the Brownsville chapter of Kids Voting USA which impresses the importance of voting on K-12 students. Encouraging voting among college students is seen as an extension of these efforts and is consistent with the view that voting behavior is a habit that can be developed by active intervention.

A variety of ad hoc efforts by faculty and staff intended to increase voter turnout coalesced into Project 100%, a campus-wide effort to facilitate voting among students and the larger community coordinated by the CCE. Among the activities sponsored by Project 100% have been:

  • Training students, faculty, and staff as deputy voter registrars; there were 110 deputy voter registrars at UTB-TSC for the Fall of 2010.
  • Sponsoring “Constitution Day” plus assignments and activities by faculty intended to raise awareness of American governance.
  • Hosting a forum for Brownsville mayoral candidates prior to the 2011 election
  • The University Provost, Dr. Alan Artibise, has encouraged faculty to make class time available for students to vote at the campus early voting station.

The CCE has also sponsored and recognized faculty service learning assignments directly related to encouraging voting among students. One project for a developmental reading class (READ 0322) required students to write a “why to vote” speech and deliver it to another class. Student Scholars from the CCE assisted the READ 0322 students in developing this project (Personal communication with Dr. Angelica Fuentes, February 9, 2012). Another project was the creation of a voter guide by students in American and Texas Government (GOVT 2301) for the Fall Semester of 2010 that included contacting candidates and writing a reflection paper on the activity. The completed voter guide was posted on the CCE website before Election Day. Dr. John Cook served as faculty sponsor of the League of Student Voters from 2005-2010 and has

moderated a number of forums for city, county, state, and national elections. In addition, Dr. Cook’s classes have served in voter registration activities. (E-mail from Dr. John Cook, 2-13-12)

As of the Spring Semester 2012, the CCE is sponsoring several projects intended to generate interest in the 2012 elections. One is sponsoring Candidate Forums that will include those seeking positions in the US Congress as well as candidates for state and local offices. One service learning project for the Spring 2012 Semester is the active administration of the Candidate Forums by students from American Government and Policy (GOVT 2302). Among the tasks handled by the students are formulating and screening questions for the candidates, creating and distributing flyers, writing editorials for various local media, crowd control, serving as moderator, assisting in the establishment of a local chapter of the League of Women Voters, and serving as deputized voter registrars.

Members of GOVT 2302 will be required to write a reflection paper on the activity once the Candidate Forums are completed. A related service learning project has been writing public service announcements for the Candidates Forum by a section of Introduction to Communication (Personal communication with Dr. Maria N. Hodgson, 2-10-12).

The tangible results of the efforts of the CCE and Project 100% have been modest as the totals for the UTB-TSC early voting station follow the established pattern of peaking for Presidential elections with a lower turnout observed for midterm and local elections, as illustrated below (Office of the Cameron County Registrar of Voters, Excel files of early voting results for elections transmitted by e- mail on May 23, 2011):


Early Votes at UTB-TSC

Local School Board Election, 2006


General Election, November 2008


Local Election, May 2009


General Election, November 2010


Mayoral Election, May 2011


Perhaps encouraging is that the decline in early votes cast from 2008 to 2010 at the UTB-TSC early voting station (41%) was somewhat lower than the drop in turnout for Cameron County as a whole (45%). The number of early votes cast at UTB-TSC for the 2011 mayoral election increased by 89% compared to the previous local election of 2009. It should be pointed out that comparing the early vote totals for different elections is problematic as the UTB-TSC voting station is accessible to all in Cameron County and the number of votes cast cannot be separated among students, faculty, staff, and those outside the university community. These tallies also exclude those who vote on Election Day at their designated voting station. While the number of early votes cast on- campus is a very limited measure of the impact of the efforts of the CCE and Project 100%, this data does provide a baseline for observing change over time.

Discussion of Current Activities and Future Directions

Building social capital is a process that is not readily quantified and the impacts may not be immediately tangible, so expecting readily observable results from the efforts of the CCE to change the political culture of the Rio Grande Valley may not be realistic. Still, there can be inquiry into the impacts of the CCE’s activities both for involvement in civic affairs and participation in the political process.

Observing the number of students enrolled in service learning courses offers little insight into the long-term impacts of such experiential learning, and the number of early votes cast in a particular election at the campus voting station is problematic for a variety of reasons discussed earlier. A more insightful analysis of the impact of the CCE’s activities may be provided by a longitudinal analysis of student political activity over time or a cohort study of the dynamics of student voting. Such a study would also allow for examining the relationship between civic engagement and likelihood of voting in terms of Putnam’s linkage of the concepts and Eliasoph’s suggestion of treating civic engagement and political activity as separate topics. Such an approach may also provide insight into the impacts of efforts to induce young people to develop the habit of voting. One readily observable measure of student political engagement may be membership and participation in politically-oriented groups such as the University Democrats and the College Republicans. Both clubs have been active at times in the past but are dormant as of the Spring Semester of 2012.

Another important consideration in promoting civic engagement at UTB- TSC is the conflict between diversity and civic engagement observed by Costa

and Kahn. While the campus and community are classified as “Hispanic,” this is still a diverse community with a range of perspectives and interests. While it is readily observable that many people are more comfortable interacting with those of similar backgrounds, there may be ways to reduce conflict and promote interaction among various groups that are less obtrusive and counterproductive than the heavy-handed speech codes of the 1990s. One model for fostering constructive exchange of views while recognizing diversity in an atmosphere of mutual respect is offered by the “Difficult Dialogues” initiative of the Ford Foundation ( ). UTB-TSC has participated in this initiative for several years (Dr. John Cook, personal communication 2-9-12), and the impact of this activity is worthy of further research.


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About the Author:

Leland Coxe

Assistant Professor Leland Coxe received his Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration from Portland State University, Master of Public Administration from California State University, Long Beach, and B.A. from Louisiana State University. His areas of expertise are research methods, public budgeting, non-profit management, health care policy, and aging.

Assistant Professor, Government Department, The University of Texas at Brownsville, 80 Ft. Brown, Brownsville, TX 78520.

© 2012 Journal for Civic Commitment

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.