Exploring Civic Engagement at Evergreen

Campus move-in happened earlier than usual for participants in the Evergreen Student Civic Engagement Institute (ESCEI), a weeklong academic program that takes place prior to the start of fall quarter.

by Whitney Smith

Photo of students walking by the water.

“[ESCEI] served as a broad introduction to becoming civilly engaged and the important topics facing our community. Some of the topics introduced will take a lifetime to think about.”
—Zoe Wright, 2015 ESCEI participant. Photo by Shauna Bittle ‘98

Now in its third year, the program serves as an introduction for first-year students to explore their place not only at Evergreen and in the Olympia community, but as citizens in the democratic process. Inspired by Fred Goldberg, longtime philanthropist and chair of Evergreen’s Board of Trustees, the program and fall-quarter service project earn students two academic credits.

The 2015 ESCEI cohort included 53 students and four student mentors, with participants hailing from as far away as Singapore and Guam. Former Washington State governor and former Evergreen president Dan Evans kicked off the week with a welcoming dinner for the students. The week’s schedule challenged students with activities ranging from meeting state legislators and taking dispute-resolution training, to navigating Evergreen’s challenge course and trying their hands at improv.

Institute Director John McLain’s opening remarks emphasized embracing complexity as part of civic engagement. Students put the concept into practice during “The Future of Capitol Lake,” a workshop where local activists presented opposing viewpoints on the same issue—one side advocating dam removal and restoration, the other for improving the lake with the dam in place. Students then compared and contrasted the information on both sides of the issue. “Something that really stuck with me was how not just the opinions of the groups conflicted—their facts did as well,” said participant Helena Abernethy. “It was surprising and interesting to me.”

The ESCEI students further explored civil discourse during meetings with former Congressman Brian Baird, political correspondent Austin Jenkins, and Evergreen president George Bridges. Following the program, participant Zoe Wright observed, “I have a better understanding of why civil disagreement is important … Politicians and people in authority are not as inaccessible as they might seem.”

Community-based learning allowed students the opportunity for hands-on engagement, which included distributing books as part of the Books to Prisoners Project and volunteering an afternoon at the GRuB farm. The act of physically working on projects added depth to the program beyond theoretical conversations and lectures. “I personally felt like I was making someone’s day,” reflected Roquin-Jon Siongco on his participation in the Books to Prisoners project.

Besides academic activities, the institute was a great way for new students to orient themselves to Evergreen. “I would encourage first-year students to apply to ESCEI,” said Odette Finn, who participated in ESCEI last year and returned as a student mentor. “It’s a fantastic way to make new friends, meet the people who make Evergreen what it is, and to get involved in the Olympia community on and off campus.” Siongco concurred, adding, “It was absolutely liberating because I felt like I could really be myself. The program was, simply, just a phenomenal way to start my college career.”