Engaging in Local Issues to Benefit the Community and Enhance Student Learning

Civix, Issue 1, volume 1


David J. Hurley, Kayla C. Isenbletter, & Elizabeth A. Bennion, Indiana University South Bend

APSA’s Civic Engagement Section promotes both the teaching and practice of civic engagement. In this essay, we argue that requiring students to engage with local communities is an ideal way to build civic knowledge and skills while inspiring future engagement.

Michael Smith and the Hon. Bob Graham argue that teaching “citizenship” differs from teaching “civics,” and advocate for a comprehensive shift in how we teach “students the rights, responsibilities and competencies of active citizenship,” (Smith & Graham, 2014, p. 703). They suggest that traditional political science curricula should be accompanied by an emphasis on the importance of “engagement in the ‘real world’” (p. 703). For most students, that real world is their local community. Graham and Hand’s in book, America: The Owner’s Manual (2009), provides a model of “an active citizenship-based curriculum based on achieving change on a local issue that students chose” (as cited in Smith & Graham, 2014, p. 703). This bottom-up approach is premised on the notion that students learn most passionately about citizenship through issues in which government has an immediate impact on their lives. Just as athletes learn better on a playing field than a classroom, students learn about citizenship best by actively engaging with public policy that affect students’ own lives, in their own communities.

To help put this idea into practice, we conducted a review of the literature on civic engagement from the articles in PS: Political Science & Politics over the last decade and found several articles, along with Smith & Graham, that offer useful suggestions, insights, and best practices for ways to facilitate student engagement with local communities (Hurley, Isenbletter, & Bennion, 2021).

the capstone course

In “Civic Engagement in the Capstone: The ‘State of the Community’ Event” (2014), Charles C. Turner describes a senior capstone course that provides students with a “real world opportunity to serve as political consultants” to local municipalities. In their role as consultants to public agencies in a small city, students experience the intricacies of multi-staged processes from policy planning to citizen engagement. They sit in on committee work, observe municipal administration, and engage with city council members along the way.

Turner argues for the value of such a capstone project, as it can be “a turning point for political science students who must soon transition from the undergraduate world to citizens in the surrounding community” (p. 497). The course provides a template for “interacting with agencies, city officials and the public” while “emphasizing the importance of timeliness, teamwork, presentation skills, and professionalism” (p. 497) to provide experiences relevant to diverse disciplines. The final product, a “State of the City” report, provides a tangible, time-restricted goal for students. Students immerse themselves in their local municipalities through production of a SWOT Analysis Plan of Action and a Community Report presented as part of a State of the Community forum where they publicly present a project in collaboration with a community partner.

Students benefit from presenting themselves professionally and practicing communication skills in an authentic community engagement experience. Their engagement with their local community instills confidence while exposing them to a broad range of applicable public administration career tracks and real-life contacts relevant to their political science studies. Turner shares obstacles and challenges, many of which relate to the difficulties often encountered when authentically engaging with external institutions/individuals. Turner suggests such obstacles can be avoided when student efforts bring real benefits to the community. Over time, the willing collaboration of local partners — necessary for sustained success — will only happen if students bring real value. This requires a strong commitment from instructors and the preparation and screening of students.

simulation as civic engagement

Dealing with the uncertainties inherent in external engagement with local communities is a difficult challenge for instructors, but it is the very uncertainty of real-world dynamics that makes such involvement in the local community so valuable. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate such risks. In “Stimulating City Councils: Increasing Student Awareness and Involvement” (2012), Sara R. Rinfret describes how to engage students with stimulating city councils by simulating them. “To captivate contemporary students [Rinfret argues] that a city council simulation is imperative,” (p. 513) and she outlines a detailed process for doing so. In requiring students to attend council meetings and write reflections in preparation for the simulation, Rinfret cleverly motivates civic engaged learning and encourages the occasional adrenalin rush that can accompany one’s experience in seeing the ‘sausage-making’ of democracy in its oft disheveled state. One student reflected that “I hated having to give up a Tuesday night to attend a city council meeting, but I loved it! One alderperson spit on another due to a disagreement about roundabouts.” Democracy in action, indeed.

Rinfret’s simulation model requires students represent all constituencies. They select roles, such as mayor, alderpersons, neighborhood advocates and business associations. With students representing such diverse constituencies, the class together experiences the breadth, depth and complexity of local politics. To research their roles, students visit neighborhood groups and business associations and meet with city leaders. Such direct engagement provides students with exhilarating opportunities to witness individual citizens actively engaged in their local communities on issues they feel passionate about. As one student noted in their reflection, “This simulation should be a requirement as one of our general education courses. We should all be aware of what is going on around us.”

civics programs in rural environments

The intimacy and accessibility of small cities can facilitate student involvement in their local communities. Both Turner and Rinfret pre-suppose student access to municipal leaders and agency staff. However, students in rural communities may not have easy access to such municipal institutions. Brian Anderson, in “High-Impact Political Science Internships in a ‘Low-Density’ Environment” (2014) recognizes the civic engagement needs of students not proximate to urban centers and that the opportunity for active engagement in politics is inordinately centered on high-density urban centers close to political power. In Washington, D.C., state capitals, and other centers of commerce and politics, a vast infrastructure accommodates interns and provides other opportunities for civic engagement and service learning. In such ‘capital city’ intern programs, a cohort of students from around the country are typically assigned prescribed functions that may be instructive, but are often circumscribed within narrow parameters. Students with resources may be drawn to high-profile experiences in metropolitan centers close to political power. But a dearth of such opportunities exists for rural students with fewer resources.

Though rural communities could benefit from low-cost human resources like interns, they may lack an administrative infrastructure to support robust intern programs. While circumstances may limit intern opportunities, Anderson argues that the informality of small-town governments can make intern experiences more enriching. In smaller communities, a capable intern may be deployed as-needed when situations arise, offering a wider range of direct experience with how local government functions. Anderson points out that “with fewer layers of hierarchy, small-city institutions directly expose students to decision-making processes and the impact of public policy” (p. 862).

experiential learning in graduate programs

Arguably, the value of experiential learning is enhanced when students bring direct benefits to their community. For students to realize the satisfaction of tangibly benefiting their community, their endeavors must necessarily be local. In “Experiential Learning in MPA programs: A Case for Complementarity between Internship and Service Learning Requirements,” John David Gerlack and Tyler P. Rangel (2016) argue that service learning, which implies greater engagement with local communities by prioritizing community benefits, should receive a greater emphasis as part of the experiential learning repertoire of MPA students. Service learning is distinguished from internships in that it stresses community outcomes rather than focusing more narrowly on student learning, and implies an essential tie to the local community through relationships developed between students, faculty, the academic program, and the university as a whole.

The authors review ways to incorporate service learning into MPA programs and argue for its value in complementing internships as part of a comprehensive experiential learning curriculum for MPA programs (p. 134-135). The necessarily local orientation of service-learning programs is attributed to the “mutually reinforcing relationship focused on the surrounding community” (p. 135). The mutable character of local, public organizations can make the administration of service learning programs demanding on instructors. Thus, institutional commitments to robust service-learning programs can facilitate MPA instructors using such avenues to incentivize local civic engagement. Because of the immediacy of local issues, service learning projects can provide students an opportunity to see the implementation of public administration concepts in action in a way that manifests more noticeably in one’s immediate community than may be experienced in a semester-long internship oriented to skill development in a professional setting. Gerlack and Rangel, like the other authors, advocate for active learning experiences within local communities that are meaningful to students’ due to their ability to directly witness the benefits their efforts bring to real communities.


As the long-standing aphorism states, all politics is local. Perhaps we can add a corollary posing that student political knowledge and participation is best cultivated when they engage in issues that most “closely parallel students’ own life experiences” (Smith & Graham, 2014, p. 703). The articles reviewed here provide helpful ideas and guidance for student engagement with local communities. They provide templates for numerous ways that civic engagement can be productively accomplished at the local level. Not only do the authors provide helpful examples that others might borrow, they make a compelling case that civic engagement strategies oriented to local communities may be the best way to teach citizenship. Anderson shows that the seeming dearth of internships in small towns and rural communities may conceal unique opportunities for highly enriching and diverse student experiences. Both Rinfret and Turner lay out methods for working with local governments that offer intimate involvement with ‘politics’ on the ground level that would be difficult to accomplish in larger governmental institutions. Meeting with an alderperson whom one plans to ‘play’ in a city simulation is about as close as one can get to politics on a human level. The heightened degree of accountability that results from working closely with members of the local community is one reason, according to Turner, that active learning in local communities is so valuable. Students gain more when more is expected of them, and local citizens expect more than simply providing a learning opportunity for students. They want results.

works cited

Anderson, B. (2014). High-Impact Political Science Internships in a “Low-Density Opportunity” Environment. PS: Political Science & Politics, 47(4), 862-866. doi:10.1017/S1049096514001188.

Gerlach, J., & Reinagel, T. (2016). Experiential Learning in MPA Programs: A Case for Complementarity between Internship and Service Learning Requirements. PS: Political Science & Politics, 49(1), 132-138. doi:10.1017/S1049096515001158.

Graham, B.T., & Hand, C. (2009). America, the Owner’s Manual: You Can Fight City Hall—and Win. CQ Press.

Hurley, D., Isenbletter, K., & Bennion, E.A. (2021). Civic Engagement Scholarship: What We Can Learn from the Research [Conference presentation]. APSA 2021 Annual Meeting, Seattle, WA, United States.

Rinfret, S. (2012). Simulating City Councils: Increasing Student Awareness and Involvement. PS: Political Science & Politics, 45(3), 513-515. doi:10.1017/S104909651200039X.

Smith, M., & Graham, B. T. (2014). Teaching Active Citizenship: A Companion to the Traditional Political Science Curriculum. PS: Political Science & Politics, 47(3), 703-710. doi:10.1017/S1049096514000870.

Turner, C. (2014). Civic Engagement in the Capstone: The “State of the Community” Event. PS: Political Science & Politics, 47(2), 497-501. doi:10.1017/S1049096514000444.

David J. Hurley, Kayla C. Isenbletter, and Elizabeth A. Bennion are guest contributors to APSA Educate. The views expressed in the articles featured on APSA Educate are those of the authors and do not represent APSA’s views.

Civix is the newsletter of the The Civic Engagement Section of the American Political Science Association was founded in 2020 to promote civic engagement teaching, research, and praxis.

Editor: Carah Ong Whaley (James Madison University)

Submissions: apsacivic@gmail.com

Any questions or corrections to how the newsletter appears on Educate should be addressed to educate@apsanet.org

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