As the day approaches when we will receive our diplomas on top of Miller Hill and descend into the real world, the question is on everyone’s mind: “What are you going to do after Colby?” Since that question makes my stomach knot tighter than a pack of freshman going to the dining hall, I will consider a slightly different question. Not what will I do after Colby, but what I have done at Colby so far?
In my four years on the Hill, I’ve engaged in dozens of snowball fights, run the three-mile loop 50 times, and handed in some 24 midterms. But what, exactly, have I done? Has my paper on Afghanistan significantly affected President Bush’s policies towards that country? Have our class discussions about the environment reduced pollution in China? I have gotten up, showered and gone to class over 980 times, discussed assignments in “The Street” and attended a cappella concerts on Chapel Hill but what have I done to change the real streets in the communities around me?
When most people think of community engagement, they think of traditional community service, and there is certainly plenty of opportunity for extracurricular civic engagement at Colby. But much of my civic engagement at Colby has actually been a part of my classes themselves, and this I argue, is the true value of a Colby education.
My first experience with community-based learning was ED231, “Teaching for Social Justice,” a class I took sophomore year with Professor Mark Tappan (education). We learned about issues of social equality, and tried to connect them to our experiences as semester-long volunteers in local elementary school classrooms. While we read powerful literature such as Jonathan Kozol's, Savage Inequalities, I don’t think I ever truly understood the savageness of racial inequalities until I saw the discrimination that a black second-grade girl faced every day. Who knew that second graders could be so mean?
That experience was so rewarding that for my final semester I sought out another community-based learning class: AY298, “Exhibiting the Culture and History of Lewiston’s Somali Bantu Community” with Professor Catherine Besteman (anthropology).
The goal of this class was to put together both an online exhibit and a physical exhibit in Colby’s Museum of Art about the Somali Bantu community in Lewiston, Maine. The Somali Bantu are ethnic minorities from Somalia who were persecuted during the civil war in Somalia. Many of the former refugees now are resettled in the U.S., including sizeable communities in Portland and Lewiston, Maine. Professor Besteman has been working with the Lewiston Somali, some of whom she actually knew many years ago when she was doing research in Somalia.
It is difficult to pinpoint my favorite part of this project because there were so many. Perhaps it is having your professor come to you for advice about the date of the exhibit’s opening. Or taking time out of your planner-driven American life to simply wait for two hours in Lewiston to meet with members of the Somali Bantu community. Maybe it is walking past one of your classmates on campus and smiling and engaging in a meaningful conversation, rather than just passing with an abbreviated “hello.” Or maybe it is knowing that the press release I write as part of my assignment for the project won’t just be turned in for an “A” but will be disseminated in the community to bring people to the museum exhibition.
Now some skeptics may be wondering if sitting in a van for hours or coloring with second graders is really doing anything more than writing papers. And to this I have to ask: what, really, is the goal of a Colby education? Do we expect to graduate and be able to write, read, and hold intelligent discussions? Of course. But does Colby also expect me to walk off of Chapel Hill in two months and be able to enact meaningful social changes in my community?
So perhaps I don’t need to panic when people drop the big question. Because although my plans for the future are not yet solidified, I can look back at my experiences at Colby, at all that I have already done for the community and at my capacity to enact real social change, and realize that my engagement with the community has only just begun.
Click here to view the Web site about the Somali Bantu in Maine, produced by students in Taylor’s class.