A classroom ready for learning. Photo by Pixabay.

By Parisa Burton | The Signal

This story was produced in collaboration with The Signal (TCNJ) and CivicStory as part of the Ecology-Justice Reporting Fellowship.

In 2021, Governor Murphy signed “Laura Wooten’s Law,” mandating the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) to require at least one course in civics or U.S. government in middle school social studies curriculums. The bill also directs the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers University to assemble curriculum guidelines and provide high school social studies teachers with the professional development skills needed to successfully integrate civics, economics, and NJ history in their classrooms.

But what initiatives are being taken beyond secondary education? How can higher education prepare adults to understand, participate in, and care about the communities they’re a part of? The College of New Jersey takes a unique approach. Going beyond mere understanding of American governance and structure, it equips learners with the knowledge and tools necessary to become active citizens in society to foster meaningful change.

“Civic education is more than an ‘operating manual’ for representative government,” said Dr. Maxwell Burkey, former Visiting Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at TCNJ. “At its best, civic education in a democracy gives us the critical capacity to recognize power inequities, and to reckon with their arbitrariness.”

The College of New Jersey’s approach in addressing civic education initiatives involves being intentional about their requirements rather than just folding civic concepts into more general learning. TCNJ operates under the “College Core,” which provides undergraduate students with the essential components to be successful in their personal, professional, intellectual, and civic lives. 

“A number of institutions don’t necessarily have specific requirements when they address diversity, equity and social justice,” said Christopher “Kit” Murphy, Associate Provost for Curriculum and Liberal Learning at the College of New Jersey. “They may have learning outcomes the courses meet but they aren’t very obviously titled and do it more through infusion.” 

TCNJ’s core curriculum has four social justice components: first-year community engagement (FYCEL), gender & sexuality, global perspectives, and race & ethnicity. First Year Seminar (FYS) is another requirement that, though not categorized as “social justice,” still reflects most of its learning principles.

Two students studying outside. Photo by Charlotte May.

FYCEL has three elements—two educational sessions, a community service activity, and a reflection session. The education component lays the groundwork for understanding community issues before taking part in the service. 

“Students sometimes come in with a single story about communities they are not a part of,” said Brittany Aydelotte, FYCEL Institute Director. “We hope to begin to address that through teaching students about the cycle of socialization, how policies impact different communities, and how they can continue to learn more.” 

The course extends beyond civic education to foster change in the surrounding Trenton community through its service initiative. TCNJ partners with various community organizations that prioritize community-identified needs—like Arm In Arm, a non-profit organization that aids people in crisis with food, rental assistance, and work opportunities. The organization has a site in Trenton. 

Arm in Arm reps complimented the student volunteers’ “flexibility and engagement,” noting that their contributions helped the organization “streamline their operations” in serving the community. 

The reflection portion of the course allows students to reflect on their experiences and brainstorm how they can continue to strengthen their community engagement beyond the course.

Aydelotte recounted an anonymous response from a former student: “I learned more about the history of New Jersey, specifically Trenton and how things such as race, ethnicity, gender, and age affect people today as well as how experiences from the past affect the present day… I thought it was beneficial that there was a focus on knowing when and where we should help.”

Educating young people on civics increases the likelihood of them becoming more active in fighting for the issues they care about.

“Young people have the opportunity to impact elections through voting and voter engagement efforts, to have their voices heard by our elected officials,” Aydelotte said. 

TCNJ Votes! is a political coalition of faculty and students that aims to boost student voter engagement by providing them with resources and opportunities to become educated about the impact of politics on their lives. It is led by the CEL Institute and the Office of Co-Curricular and Leadership Development.

According to Aydelotte, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) shares a student survey report every four years which includes a section on high-impact practices, including “service learning.” 

The efforts appear to be working. Aydelotte pointed out favorable participation rates across the student body.

“According to the TCNJ NSSE 2022 High-Impact Practices Report, 83% of senior students surveyed reported participating in service learning, compared to 60% of NJ schools,” Aydelotte said. “And 77% of senior African American–identifying TCNJ students surveyed reported participating in service learning, compared to 66% nationally.” Per the College, the report has not yet been made accessible to the public.

First Year Seminar (FYS) is another TCNJ learning requirement that fosters meaningful change through its curriculum. There are about 70 unique topics offered each year and professors have the opportunity to touch on an array of civic-related topics such as race & ethnicity, gender, and global perspectives. 

About two-thirds of the courses have a social justice topic tagged to them that fulfill a college-specific civic responsibility requirement, according to Constance Karotz, Director of FYS and Associate Professor.

This course coaxes students out of their comfort zone and teaches them how to have scholarly conversations about important societal issues. 

Karotz emphasized that one standout course has been “Imprisoned Minds,” taught by Dr. Mark Edwards, Adjunct Instructor for the Department of Integrative STEM Education. The course examines the works of imprisoned authors and guides students through difficult readings. The course further engages students through guest speakers, some of whom have been wrongly convicted. Edwards won the Robert Anderson Teaching Award for this course. 

“He got an email from a nursing student eight years after the student took the course,” Karotz said. The student had kept all the books from the course, using them to find perspective and perseverance during the 2020 lockdown. The student pulled out those readings and composed an email to Edwards expressing gratitude for his role in helping him navigate a challenging time period.

“Our hope is that students will get that curiosity and begin to understand that college is going to open up new ways of thinking and help them be curious about what they want to know for themselves,” Karotz said.

Institutions offering a narrower civic education curriculum can draw inspiration from TCNJ’s unique model. According to Murphy, the goal of College Core is not to foster a more well-rounded education but provide students with the skills, knowledge, and mindsets they need to lead fulfilling lives and be agents of change in their communities. 

Students gain the ability to approach important and complex topics and issues,” said Murphy. “With a toolkit of the essential skills required to understand and address these topics and issues.”



Parisa Burton is a Staff Writer for The Signal (TCNJ) and a CivicStory Reporting Fellow. This story was produced in collaboration with The Signal and CivicStory as part of the Ecology-Justice Reporting Fellowship.

Share This

Share this story with your social networks