By Elizabeth Housholder

Last year, colleges and universities were asked to do their part for democracy.

Specifically, they were called to "embrace civic learning and democratic engagement as an undisputed educational priority" in "A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future," a report by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement.

Why? College students want their campuses to contribute to the larger community, according to the University of Michigan Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education's National Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory. However, the center noted that "the longer the students stay in college, the wider the gap becomes between their endorsement of social responsibility as a goal of college and their assessment of whether the institution provides opportunities for growth in these areas."

In other words, students want their campuses to contribute, but that desire, and the opportunities, decrease during their time at college - a challenge that is both sobering and inspiring for educators.

Fostering civic engagement in young adults is vital for the future of our democracy and civic prosperity. But how do you turn "crucible moments" into transformative ones?

Start with a student's first days on campus.

At Widener University, we begin developing students into leaders on their second day on campus, with a "Freshman Day of Service" in Chester.

Widener is a private metropolitan university that connects curriculums to social issues through civic engagement. We believe that our university becomes stronger and our students' education grows deeper with collaborative and mutually beneficial community partnerships. With its main campus in Chester, Widener works to help build a stronger community for all - students and local residents alike.

The Freshman Day of Service involves nearly half the class, and it goes beyond asking students to pick up trash in local neighborhoods. Instead, student leaders select and coordinate the details of meaningful service experiences in Chester.

The day, overseen by Widener's Office of Civic Engagement, combines an educational component - a video and time for reflection - with service in order to address any stereotypes about Chester (such as those involving the community's struggles with public education and poverty levels) and emphasizes the value of service.

The video features Chester residents, community partners, and members of the Widener community. They share stories and experiences of Chester's rich history, its current social and economic struggles, and the university's civic mission and community partnerships.

Students then spend the second afternoon of their college career serving alongside classmates, Chester residents, and community leaders. Activities range from reading and playing games with the residents of a Chestnut Ridge Assisted Living Center to helping organize computer and classroom space at the Chester Education Foundation.

Following the service activities, students reflect on their perceptions of Chester. Last year, of the 243 students who completed a survey, 92 percent said they would like to participate in service experiences in Chester again. Nearly 82 percent of the participants said they had a great day serving. The Office of Civic Engagement capitalized on these responses and recently launched a virtual hub for students looking for volunteering opportunities.

Today's college students are tomorrow's leaders. As educators, we must seize the opportunity to challenge, empower, and support them in living as responsible, thoughtful citizens dedicated to positive change.

Elizabeth Housholder is the assistant dean for civic engagement at Widener University. E-mail her at eahousholder@widener.edu.