Baylor History Department Chair Dr. David Conwell serves as the school's Civic Engagement Coordinator and wants people to understand that the Civic Scholars Program is more expansive than civics classes. “Civic engagement is not just civics, and it is not simply about checks and balances and legislature. We have students whose capstone projects have nothing to do with government but everything to do with contributing to others outside of their individual world.”
Q. Can you explain what the Civic Scholars Program is?
A. Fostering and promoting a respectful, courteous, and productive environment for civic discourse is an expectation for all Baylor students, but students in the Civic Scholars program are expected to undertake an intentional leadership role in that area inside and outside of the school community. Baylor’s Civic Scholars are focused as much as possible on leadership roles and are involved in civic engagement courses, programs, clubs, and extra-curricular activities. They are required to keep a digital portfolio and finish with a capstone project that makes a difference in their broader community. The way I see this program is that the kids are doing these things already, and they are noble kids – they probably would have done these things anyway – but why not recognize them for acts of virtue and at the same time, encourage others to do it? It is gratifying to become involved in the community, but with this program they also get acknowledged for it.
Q. How do students become involved in Civic Scholars?
A. Students who are interested in the program meet with me in their sophomore year and develop a plan for their path toward Civic Scholar status. The designation will appear on the transcript if the student has met the benchmarks of their educational plan.
Q. What are requirements of the capstone?
A. Civic Scholars complete a project that makes a contribution in at least one of the following areas: (1) addresses a civic issue of public policy, environmentalism, community or national service, or volunteering and service learning; (2) produces a new and authentic connection between Baylor and the civic life of a larger community; (3) adds to civic awareness and engagement at Baylor; (4) and demonstrably fosters greater awareness of the common good — and its importance. They are also required to write about why the work they did mattered. I think that kind of reflection adds an important dimension to the program because it will really wrap up their experience and help them understand what they have contributed.
Q. How does Baylor’s curriculum support the Civic Scholars program?
A. Throughout the Middle School and Upper School we have history courses that focus on civics, of course, and in U.S. History there is also civics-oriented information. Beyond that, there are different courses in history, science and English. For example, in AP Human Geography, students learn about demographics, immigration, how cities work, gentrification, and red lining. Different courses in science and English help students develop the tools they need. In AP Environmental Science, they learn how the natural environment functions, how it needs to be cared for, and policies that have a positive or negative impact in the world we all live in. These are all things that they need to know about, but they need to have a deeper understanding of the context.
Q. How do Baylor’s afterschool and extracurriculars support the Civic Scholars program?
A. We like for them to not just do service but to distinguish themselves by taking a leadership role. By becoming involved in Model UN, they are taking the initiative to immerse themselves in global issues and exemplify engagement for their peers by showing that it matters. It gives them direct experience in global policymaking, requires them to learn how Congress works, do role playing and study national policies, to learn how to negotiate with one another, to understand how bills are passed, and how the U.N. works. We also have the Harris Stanford Program and the Abshire Civic Leadership Trip to Washington, D.C., where they are learning about the world beyond themselves and how they can contribute. In community service, grant writing is a fitting example of engagement for the common good.
Q. How do you guide students in the Civic Scholars program to take what they are learning in class and make a difference in their community?
A. The students involved in the program are self-driven, so my role is advisory in the sense of developing their ideas, facilitating the process, supporting and trying to help channel their self interest, and make sure they stay on track. Broadly it’s helping them develop a realistic idea, helping them figure out whom to talk to about going further with their idea, and helping them with their timetable.
Q. Why is civic engagement a relevant area of interest for students to explore?
A. I believe people are feeling less connected as a society, and we’ve got to find ways to get back to where we feel things link us. By seeing issues broadly and talking to one another, we can find that we have a lot in common. It is dangerous when people lose sight of their connection or commitment to their own society and focus on themselves. Some people just have unhappy lives or do not have as much privilege as others in the world, and it’s an act of humanity when people share what they have, whether it’s money, skills, or time.