Over winter break, close to midnight on the Thursday before Christmas and three weeks before the January 2012 White House meeting that would launch Citizen Alum as a program of the American Commonwealth Partnership, I sent long emails to 23  former undergraduate and graduate students. Most of them had taken community-based classes with me or had been involved in public scholarship projects.

“How does college or grad school look from this distance?,” I asked. “How do you negotiate the tension between making good and doing good? What lessons can you share with undergraduates?” Then I made my pitch: I invite you to write your “citizenship story” for Citizen Alum. Would you be willing to send me a short reflection on your own path as a citizen and as a creative professional after college?” I signed off (“I look forward eagerly to receiving your civic reflections”) and waited.

Five people immediately wrote sustained reflective responses. I heard back from 14 former students. They were eager to share their thoughts about their post-graduate pathways and about how they wanted to engage with their alma mater. Three of their reflections appear below, initially published as posts on DemocracyU, the blog of the American Commonwealth Partnership.

Cornelius (Delro) Harris, AlterEgo music management, Detroit MI 

That class with the artist/educator Sekou Sundiata…. His work was around the notion of ‘the American Dream’ among other things, and it helped to drive home the idea that while things are NOT necessarily the way we’d like, our dreams and our sense of who we are, are how citizenship becomes personal and history is made…. [The class encompassed] work with community artists, activists, and physical spaces. There was room to shape the learning to our own needs personally, politically, and beyond. So while I work in music, my community work has taken the place of my academic work to the piece that helps the other make sense.

The experience had me consider history and culture in the context of citizenry and this in turn colored my conversations about music, culture, and southeastern Michigan, specifically Detroit.

I’ve felt this in the context of alumni support of student recruitment. I did this for about two years, glad to do so. But I began wondering about the effectiveness of the campaign, so I asked if I could get information on the students I contacted….. The response to queries was met with dismissal…. I walk away from the recruitment program with more appreciation for what I got out of my time at [the university] and more disgust with the grindhouse nature of what most will experience. Do I believe in higher education? At this point, I have to say, ‘conditionally.’ It can serve to open one’s mind to incredible possibilities and position you to be a leader. However it can also be a trap, an expensive lesson in gambling with your future.

What if education was seen as a way to enhance life? No guarantee of incredible income or fame, but a series of courses meant to deepen the experience of life in this country and/or the world?…. What does it mean to engage a community with your higher educated self if you can’t connect with them? … So what if even recruiting was altered? What if alumni worked with professors and others in a department and were able to talk about not only the generic university, but about specific courses offered and the people who teach them?

I think of the University like a powerful force of nature, something that can be good or bad depending on how it’s used/interpreted…. I don’t want to be from a loser country. Yet, if the educational misfires and inequalities continue, that will be the result. Not that education alone is the answer, but it’s a large piece of the puzzle.

Jawuan Miguel Meeks, doctoral student in Education, Michigan State University

I entered the teaching profession based on a combination of two experiences. The first experience involved a process of deep reflection of growing up in my hometown of Detroit…. While at [college] I began to explore counter-narratives and seek out ways I could contributed to, not criticize, my place of birth.

I enrolled in courses with social justice and social change orientations…documenting and reflecting on the creative process of [high school] students embarking upon telling their families’ arrival stories in Detroit. Outside of the classroom, I was actively involved with…student government…and as a member of the student planning team for the Semester in Detroit.

Currently, in my role as alumni and development support chairperson [for Telluride Association, Ann Arbor], I am responsible for facilitating college weekends two times a year for underrepresented students…. Since I am no longer in the classroom, connecting with these young people, as they pursue their academic dreams, allows me to stay engaged with my vision of a more equitable society.

In sum, my time spend at the University gave me the tools, language, and understanding necessary to process my experience growing up in Detroit….  I plan to return to Detroit and seek out ways in which I can contribute to better educational outcomes for all students and families in Detroit Public Schools.

Erica Lehrer, Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair, in Post-Conflict Memory, Enthography, and Museology. Director, Centre for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence, Concordia University, Montreal

Grinnell College already had the instinct to support and engage with alumni as citizens when I was a new alum, and they responded positively and creatively to my overtures to remain connected to the college after graduation.

But what I had been looking for in my first post-college decade was a way to share my excitement about the professionalization experiences I was undergoing, and to share the wisdom I was gaining (and the challenges I was facing) on my path to becoming an anthropologist, documentarian, and ‘culture broker’—and trying to forge a different kind of path through the academy as a ‘publicly engaged scholar,’ with current Grinnellians. I felt I had access now to things I wish I’d known and contacts I wish I’d had when I was in their shoes, and I wanted to share them. But my occasional overtures to the college’s career center were met with rather unclear and uninspiring offers to put my information in a binder.

I also recall hoping I myself might find some useful direction from what I recall as the college’s ‘Center for Social Justice’ when I was feeling a bit adrift in my career aspirations in the early post-graduation years. If later I felt I might have something to offer… I also instinctively looked back to it with hope for future guidance, energy and networks as I went forward.

Some kind of alumni-citizen ‘think tank’ back at the college…might be the starting point.


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