One of my favorite aspects of blogging is learning about various programs and initiatives that infuse civic engagement and service-learning into the college experience. Dickinson College in Pennsylvania is prepared to announce the implementation of a public service fellowship program which will serve as one of the best examples yet of an institution linking its values with President Obama’s call for public service.

From the soon-to-be-released release:

After four years of high school, not all students are ready to continue with higher education. For some, a one-year break from academia, commonly referred to as a “gap year,” provides time for students to learn more about themselves and the world. Already common in other countries, the U.S. is now seeing an increase in students seeking time off before matriculation to save money for college; others seek civic engagement or travel. President Obama has called on Americans to participate in our nation’s recovery and renewal by serving in our communities. To support this idea, the federal government’s Web site Serve.gov is an online resource for registering a community program, finding service opportunities and the tools for creating one.

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Students can apply for admission into the Fellowship in their senior year of high school. If accepted, students may defer enrollment until the beginning of the academic year for one, two, three or four years. Students who have engaged in public service for up to four years following high-school graduation receive a $10,000 tuition credit for each year of public service, up to a total of $40,000. Use of credits will be limited to a maximum of $10,000 annually and will be applied to the student’s account when matriculated. The Fellowship amount will be in addition to other institutional grants and scholarships for which the student may be eligible. Dickinson grants and scholarships won’t be affected by receipt of the Fellowship unless the student’s total gift aid exceeds the student’s total cost of attendance. The college will work with students to determine the best timing for using the credits, within the context of other aid.

Students must engage in meaningful public service devoted to improving the human condition and/or the natural environment. A student may opt to join well-established public service programs that offer a wide array of experiences, such as AmeriCorps (which also awards up to $4,725 for college tuition), or the student may pursue an independently designed project with a local, national or international nonprofit organization. In all cases, students must work 30-40 hours a week for 10-12 months (at least 1,200 total hours). The hours may be a traditional 30-40 hour workweek, or a more intensive experience such as disaster relief work that may require 12 to 14 hour days. The public service work may be compensated or uncompensated.

In order to reap the financial benefits of this program, Public Service Fellows must submit an application including an essay stating how they hope to contribute to themselves and society through the work they will be completing. Once the project is complete, the student is then required to submit a reflection essay discussing how the student’s experience will impact his or her Dickinson experience.

In addition to the financial advantages afforded to them, Public Service Fellows will add to an already impressive Dickinson education. Those students participating in the program will contribute to a reflection ceremony open to the Dickinson community by sharing lessons learned from the public service projects. Furthermore, the campus will give Public Service Fellows priority consideration for campus-based leadership positions, such as resident advisor and campus advisor, further emphasizing the importance of giving back to one’s community throughout the Dickinson experience.

Granted, a Dickinson education isn’t cheap to start with. The tuition itself is almost $40,000 a year, and the bill only increases after other fees are added. But as noted above, students can work in public service for up to four years, netting $40,000. While students can only spend up to $10,000 yearly, all of this money is on top of any additional financial aid the school offers (receiving the fellowship does not impact other scholarship and grant opportunities).

One way to add to the program might be to incorporate an academic piece. For instance, instead of limiting students to writing two essays, perhaps those deciding to matriculate at Dickinson any given year would be required to register for a seminar to further explore their experiences, more intensely investigating themes they observed or felt while serving. This would then improve the quality of the on-campus discussion led by fellows.

In 2008, many of the Democratic presidential candidates offered similar proposals on their platforms, but nothing was this beneficial to students. This initiative provides Dickinson with a way to accentuate the importance of civic engagement among its students, while making its valued education more accessible to students predisposed with the ability to work hard and develop strong reflective skills. Those fellows admitted will be offered opportunity after opportunity to learn how to contribute to the greater good, while following in the footsteps of Dickinson College’s founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. In a public address in 1787, Rush urged every citizen to become an engaged public servant. Now, some 222 years later, with another American leader issuing the same call, Dickinson College is leading the way among institutions of higher education.

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