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Civically Engaged

New advancements in academics and leadership inspired many changes at Ohio Northern University this past year. Chief among these changes was a renewed effort to improve civic engagement between the University and Ada community.

During his inaugural speech, President Daniel DiBiasio shared his vision to “optimize volunteerism activities and foster more opportunities for service and civic engagement.” First lady Chris Burns-DiBiasio seeks to further this goal in her capacity as director of community relations at ONU. As a result, civic engagement continues to evolve across campus, especially in the College of Arts & Sciences.

In November, ONU’s Civic Engagement Series featured an Issue 2 Debate before the general election to provide information from both a Democratic and Republican standpoint regarding collective bargaining in Ohio. In preparation for the event, students contributed to the marketing of the event by posting flyers throughout campus and in many businesses in Ada. This spring, an equal share of planning went into a weekend seminar on heroin issues in Hardin County. The event included faculty, students and guest speakers and was held at ONU’s Pettit College of Law. Both events raised awareness of the issues and fostered insight into areas where University and community interests align.

Panel discussions and lectures, however, are only small pieces to ONU’s development of a Center for Civic Engagement.

Dr. Keith Durkin, professor of sociology, has been a major asset to the University’s civic engagement initiatives. Over the years he has helped psychology, sociology and criminal justice students find internship opportunities with LifeWorks in Lima, Ohio. Students work in data collection and analysis or work directly with clients as tutors and mentors. They learn to use assessment tools in the evaluation of clients and have the opportunity to train with probation officers.

Outside the classroom, Durkin provides data analysis within the juvenile court system to help maintain grant funding for the Reclaiming Futures drug rehabilitation programming. He also serves as a member of the Ada Police Department’s SAFER (Seeking Aid From Every Resident) Committee and sits on the Hardin County Emergency Management Associations Homeland Security Grant Board.

“I think that as a faculty member and institution we have an obligation to engage with the community in which we reside,” says Durkin.

Dr. Robert Alexander, professor of political science, also is instrumental in encouraging students to become more civically engaged in the traditional sense. His students have partnered with Ada Local Schools, campaigning for a school levy and communicating to students about the importance of voting and elections. This fall, Alexander and his students plan to host presidential election student debates and an election-day watch party.

Personally, Alexander has engaged in more than 150 civic engagement discussions and interviews with community leaders, TV stations, radio shows and newspapers. He also has been the chief faculty proponent of the developing Center for Civic Engagement and Ada Civic Engagement Day and serves on multiple community-building committees.

“Many of these efforts take myself and others right into the Ada schools, as well as churches, etc.,” says Alexander. “There is a deep, yet quiet, bond between ONU and Ada.”

It is important for ONU students to feel a sense of belonging not only at the University, but also within the community. With students of all backgrounds coming to ONU for four years or more, it would be unfulfilling not to make an impact off campus. Community members also can find benefit in using ONU facilities, attending events and interacting with students.

The opportunities for students to achieve firsthand interaction with faculty and civic leaders also speaks to the unique, well-rounded perspective of ONU’s College of Arts & Sciences.

“Arts and sciences students graduate with an exceptional academic foundation, strong leadership abilities and a sense of engagement with the larger community,” says Dr. Catherine Albrecht, dean.

With civic engagement at the forefront of advancing Ohio Northern, the College of Arts & Sciences will continue to help bridge the gap through events, programs and outreach this coming school year.

–Steve Saunier, a senior political science major from Centerburg, Ohio