What Does Student Social Engagement Mean?

What Does Student Social Engagement Mean? Sderot, January 17, 2007
The study day, “What Does Student Social Engagement Mean?” was held in partnership with Collot BaNegev (“Voices in the Negev”) an organization for social change active in the south, and Sapir Academic College. Students, representatives of higher education institutions in the south, and representatives of community organizations participated in the study day held at Sapir Academic College.
Goals of the Study Day
The discussion about students’ social engagement has gathered increasing attention over the last few years. Public, corporate, and philanthropic organizations are investing money in scholarships for students in exchange for social action under the auspices of the students’ academic institutions. In parallel with the expanding and diverse activities, a discussion has begun to develop regarding the goals of these activities, and ways to increase their significance. This discussion raises important questions and dilemmas related to social engagement among students:
  • Which student activities in the community should be encouraged?
  • Who will determine the goals of these actions?
  • What tools do students need in their activities?
  • Can student engagement contribute to social change, and not just preserve the status quo, and if so how?
The purpose of the study day was to discuss these questions and to promote a joint discourse between students, representations of institutions of higher education, and representatives of social change organizations.
The discussion examined these questions while relating to the academic aspect, the institutional aspect, and the practical aspect, against the background of insights that have already been formulated in the field.
The study day included three panel sessions, each lasting for about an hour and a half. At every session, participants of the panel discussed one central question. Afterwards, the general audience took part in an open discussion.
The sessions discussed three topics:
  1. The personal aspect of the students’ actions.
  2. The social aspect – actions that contribute to social reproduction versus actions that contribute to the creation of social change.
  3. The institutional aspect – the desired relations between the community and the academy, and the goals of student engagement programs.
Description of the Sessions and the Discussions
Session 1: The Personal Aspect in Student Action
The first session discussed the question related to the personal aspect of student action: what is the goal of social action on the personal level, and what tools and knowledge do students need during and after their activities. Mr. Dudy Natan, social activist and one of the founders of Collot BaNegev, served as the chairperson for this session. Participants of the panel were representatives of social organizations and organizations that work with students, with the aim of sharing their experiences and insights: Dr. Daniel de-Malach, Chairman of Collot BaNegev and faculty member at Sapir Academic College, Ms. Amal Elsana Alh'jooj, Director of Ajeec (The Volunteer Tent of the Arab-Jewish Center for Empowerment), Ms. Tami Schneider, Co-Director of Mahapach-Taghir, Ms. Camilla Lanskind, Director of the Unit for Social Engagement at Sapir Academic College.
The speakers focused upon the personal process that students undergo during their involvement in social action—in other words, the value of working for social change from the perspective of creating change among the students themselves, beyond the specific purpose of change in the community. There was general agreement regarding the need to raise awareness among the students, and formulate a political world view. Social change organizations choose to adopt an active approach towards raising awareness, believing that this is not a spontaneous process, but rather a process that must be made possible for the students. The integration of learning and action allows them to formulate a broad world view, on the basis of personal experience and action within the community. The action in the organizations allows students to experience a social reality that is foreign to most of them, and simultaneously allows them to analyze this experience and have an impact upon the field. As Dr. de-Malach said, social action within a political organization will allow students to undergo three stages: formulating a world view and vision, improving their capacity for self-awareness, and developing the ability to act.
Another fundamental conclusion of this session related to the group aspect in student action. All organizations noted that the creation of a group for the student activists, one that is both a social and a learning group, is extremely important in the process of raising awareness. Another central function of the organizations is the incorporation of student activists into the organizations alongside continual support and guidance, both in terms of their action and personal aspects, so as to foster healthy ways of dealing with conflicts that arise.
Session 2: The Broader Social Aspect in Student Action
The second session dealt with issues related to the social aspect in student activism. It questioned whether student engagement can contribute to change and social reform, and not merely maintain the existing reality. Ms. Galit Bareket Danielli, Director of the Southern Region at ISEF, chaired this session. Participants in the panel were Ms. Tami Schneider, Co-Cirector of Mahapach-Taghir, Mr. Mag'd al-Kamlat, Director of Step Forward (Association for the Advancement of Education in Rahat), Mr. Dori Rimon, Director of youth activities in Sderot, and Ms. Rosa Neve, Director of the Center for Parents and Children in Sderot.
The speakers on the panel and other participants debated the tension that exists between preserving the status quo and social change in student activism—how can social activism foster social change, and not just provide a particular answer to a specific need. The primary solution to this dilemma lies in awareness. So long as the specific activism comes along with the formulation of a general political world view, and is accompanied by self-criticism and reflection, deliberations, and integration between the political worldview and the activism, then the activism takes on a much broader significance. Social engagement gains meaning when it stems from a broad perspective of the society that one wishes to build.
Another aspect of translating specific activities into social change involves the tools that are given in the course of specific activities, and the creation of a feeling and belief in the ability and power to change. In order to create social change, one needs people who, in addition to being aware, believe in their ability to foster change, and have a basic tool-box to do so. An experience of awareness without the ability to influence is a frustrating experience which creates despair. The belief and the tools together constitute a firm foundation for any social change. Activists need a positive experience of change, and a feeling of tangible success, in order to continue in their activities for a just society.
The discussion raised another important point, about the tension between the particular change (related to the work of a specific organization, and changing the awareness of individual students) and the need for broad social change, and the influence of broad institutional mechanisms—changing the social constructs and the social power relations. Organizations see themselves as places for students to learn, and hope that even when the students leave the organizations, they will retain their political awareness which will accompany them throughout their personal and social choices. In such a way, a political worldview can be created in society at large, which will also grant it a foothold within positions of power in the establishment. (As Galit Bareket Danielli said: “We are a nest for social activists to grow, so that in the future they will leave the academy and make the changes that we are hoping for.”)
Session 3: The Academic and Institutional Aspect in Student Social Engagement
The third session discussed the desired relationship between the academy and the community and the goals for student engagement. Dr. Zvi Schuldiner, Head of the Department of Policy and Public Administration at Sapir Academic College, chaired this panel. Participants of the panel were Prof. Ze’ev Tzachor, President of Sapir Academic College, Dr. Daphna Golan, Director of the Academy-Community Partnership for Social Change, Ms. Hedva Radovanitz, Director of SHATIL Be'er Sheva, and Ms. Tal Levi-Segel, Dean of Students of Achva College for Education.
Participants discussed ways to change the atmosphere in the academy, and to encourage academic institutions to see themselves as committed to social change. In order to do so, it was agreed, there is a need to create a joint discourse between the academy, organizations for social change, and students, such as the discussion taking place in the study day. Only a joint discourse will create a shared social view, and parameters for cooperative and consistent work. Cooperation between the various actors should be anchored within the academy. As an example, it was noted that student activists in the United States are given priority in admission to advanced degrees.
Many other examples were brought up regarding academic courses that integrate social action, including legal clinics, where there is a feeling that significant social change is being created. Such courses also constitute a microcosm of a joint discourse between organizations, students, and the academy.
An important point raised emphasized the fact that the academy also benefits from these partnerships, and so they should not be portrayed as one-sided, wherein the academy provides its resources for the benefit of the community and does not receive anything in return. The connection between the academy and the community allows it to become exposed to the field, and to make further connections between academic knowledge and the field. Prof. Tzachor related that he first understood the essence of the circle of poverty when he spoke with students who told him about a case of a woman who came to them for financial advice during the course of their activities in an organization for social change. In this regard, the students constitute a type of bridge between the academic world and the social reality.
Representatives of the institutions for higher learning noted that they have no doubt that student activists who receive proper guidance have a most significant action and learning experience, one that has ramifications upon their general learning experience, and helps foster sensitivity and critical thinking.
Conclusions from the Study Day and Thoughts for the Future
The goal is to continue to examine the questions raised during this study day, and to create a joint and in-depth dialogue between the various parties. A number of participants emphasized this need during the course of the study day; an eagerness could be discerned for dealing with these essential questions, and for continuous joint discussion.
Two Ideas for Promoting the Continuation of the Discussion:
  1. Transforming the study day into an annual conference that discusses questions of social engagement, in light of the issues on the agenda at the time.
  2. Establishing a round-table in the South in which students, social change organizations, and representatives of institutions for higher education will participate. Such a forum will meet on a more regular basis, and discuss more continuous issues and dilemmas involved. It can be a fruitful platform for cooperation and the creation of a joint agenda. During the study day, Ms. Hedva Radovanitz offered SHATIL’s assistance in establishing such a forum.
During the course of the study day, many questions and topics surfaced that merit continued discussion. These topics include, among others:
·     How do we reach more students and allow them to experience change in social thought and awareness?
·     What can be considered significant student engagement in an organization for social change?
·     How do we ensure that the responsibility that the organizations take upon themselves does not merely allow the state to evade responsibility, based on the welfare system?
·     How do we create a comprehensive system of guidance and training?
·     How do we create for the students a significant group of colleagues?
·     The creation of an approach that connects between the field and the academic institutions in a more binding way.
·     The feeling of an ‘obligation’ versus the feeling of a ‘right’ amongst students, the creation of solidarity.
·     The creation of a joint worldview and a shared vision of a “different society.”
·     Contending with the fear of political activities within academic institutions.
·     Cooperation between the academy and the organizations in constructing a theoretical-sociological program that guides students in their work through social change organizations.
 For the invitation in Hebrew, press here.
 For the program in Hebrew, press here