Well Deserved Recognition: Presidential Award winner CSU, Dominguez Hills

I was one of the people who reviewed applications for the Presidential Awards as part of the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. I remember that California State University, Dominguez Hills had a strong application. So, when they were chosen in the General Community Service category I was pleased. But I had no idea how deserving they were until I joined John Kelly, Deputy Chief of Staff at the Corporation for National and Community Service, to present the Presidential Award at their Community Engagement Symposium.

The President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll was established by President George W. Bush in 2006 to honor colleges and universities that have exemplary community service programs for their students. Each year institutions of higher education submit applications that highlight their programs to solve community problems and set students on paths of life-long commitment to civil engagement. Schools apply in the categories of General Community Service, Interfaith Community Service, Economic Opportunity, and Education. In each category schools are recognized as members of the Honor Roll, members with distinction, finalists, and one school in each category is given the Presidential Award.

Community engagement is the reason that CSU Dominguez Hills exists. They were founded in 1965 after the Watts Rebellion which was triggered by a white police officer pulling over a young African-American, Marquette Frye. A crowd gathered to protest. This was followed by six days of rioting that brought attention to issues of urban poverty. One response to the rebellion was that Governor Pat Brown immediately moved to establish a college that would serve the needs of people living in South Los Angeles including Watts. The college was founded to engage the community.

At a Community Engagement Symposium organized to celebrate all the community engagement and the honor of the Presidential Award, 41 community engagement projects were highlighted with booths, awards, and presentations. Dr. Vivian Price put community service into context with a slideshow and presentation that showed the potential of service learning. President Willie Hagan, Provost Ellen Junn, and Vice Provost Mitch Maki all showed their support for the students and staff. But the real energy behind community engagement at CSU Dominguez Hills is Cheryl McKnight, director of the Center for Service Learning.

McKnight clearly has support from faculty who integrate service learning into their courses. For example, in Anthropology 330, a Service-Learning and Community Engagement course, students not only learned about North American Indians, but they also helped organize a Pow Wow. She has support from President Hagan and the administrative staff. Students provide leadership and organize community engagement. An example is three design students who worked with a non-profit to support a project that responds to the needs of pets that are caught up in a domestic violence situation.

While it takes the commitment of a whole school to develop a high quality community engagement program like CSU Dominguez Hills has, clearly one key is to have a person like McKnight who pulls everything together and keeps the community service agenda on everyone’s mind.

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Ken is a Senior Adviser in the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.