Turning the Page: Transitioning from a Common Read to a Common Challenge

Tara Centeno,Director of Student Activities and Campus Engagement, New College of Florida

June 11, 2019

In recent years many campuses have participated in ‘Common Read’ programs for their first year students. Common Read programs are where students are given book to read, attend special lectures, and participate in discussions around the reading and themes found in the text; it is a shared experience that can create a sense of community and facilitate some unique learning opportunities by creating connections across disciplines.

Like many campuses, New College of Florida followed a similar model for a couple of years, but we struggled to get the impact of civic literacy and skill building that is a cornerstone of the liberal arts experience and  began exploring other avenues to  tie these outcomes to a project that aligned more with our campus culture. After brainstorming, we emerged with a new vision for a shared experience known as the “Common Challenge”. This was an opportunity to change our Orientation service project (that was a standalone activity) to give it more structure, a stronger focus, and enhance the impact. The common challenge entails the choosing of a social issue area by the campus orientation committee (the focus for August 2018 was food insecurity and August 2019 is going to be homelessness) and taking all of our first year students to various service sites who work to address those issues in our local community. The common challenge was not just an opportunity to engage in centralized and focused service, but created a space to bring in additional elements to learn about and explore the issue area. In addition to a cohesive theme for service, there was a panel led by local community members working in the issue area, a resource folder with videos and articles (recommended by faculty who do research in the areas) for students to explore, and Orientation Leaders were given training and questions to facilitate discussions in small groups around the topic.

Our campus was excited about creating an experience that would support the core values of our campus and build connections to the surrounding community, and the students responded positively to the initial experience in 2018! This model has supported the theme of civic literacy and skill building as identified in the CLDE Theory of Change. As the program has continued, new conversations have started about adding additional elements (like incorporating art) to engage beyond service, literature, and the panel.

Whether it is through a common read, engaging in a common challenge, or another activity there are ways to use the start of the semester and shared experiences to raise awareness and understanding of the complexities with social issues. How does do social issues affect your communities? How are you creating opportunities on your campus to engage with social issues?

Below are a few ideas to start that process:

(1) Connect with local government officials and active nonprofits to identify priority areas

(2) Gather information about impact areas from national and local resources

(3) Spend time volunteering with community partners (not just you, but your workplace too!)

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