Last weekend, the Mercersburg Civic Engagement Task Force, a faculty and staff composed body, brought its student advisory board to Washington, D.C., for two days of learning in the nation's capital. Emily Jiang ‘24, Corbin Kelly ‘24, Eliana Sandy ‘24, Ruby Shang ‘24, Dylan Stiffler ‘24, Collin Jin ‘25, Mikhael Martinez ‘25, Wyatt Parks ‘25, Luntu Radebe ‘25, Dawson Graditor ‘26, and Thomas Zhu ‘26 traveled with task force chair, Allison Stephens, and project manager, Nicole Brown.
The Civic Engagement Task Force is composed of faculty and staff, while the Civic Engagement Student Advisory Board is comprised of students who are interested in developing the culture of the school community today and for the future. This initiative aims to teach students the skills, attitudes, and knowledge required to be active and productive members within the classrooms or anywhere else on campus or in the world. The importance of civic engagement and active citizenship cannot be overstated in a world where democracy is under threat.
What is civic engagement? Civic engagement means contributing to our duties as citizens within local, national and global communities. As for the school’s commitment to preparing active citizens, Quentin McDowell, Head of School, said, “Emphasizing civic engagement means helping Mercersburg build and integrate programming across the institution that focuses on the development of the skills, attitudes, and knowledge necessary for our students to be active and productive citizens in their communities and countries."
While the adult group is leading the initiative, they understand that it is imperative to include students in the discussions. The student advisory body will serve as a liaison between the students and faculty as the program evolves. They will both share planning information and create opportunities for student feedback.
Notably, Mercersburg is one of only a handful of independent secondary schools to kickstart faculty and student-backed civic engagement initiatives. McDowell says, "It is certainly a trend we are seeing across the nation, particularly in higher education, so it is likely just a matter of time. However, the need for this type of education and training is pressing, and I am proud of Mercersburg's willingness to lead from the front with this work.”
So far, the task force and council have discussed the meaning of a civic focus in a community made up of individuals from different cultures, countries, and political systems. It will be their challenge to define an approach to civics learning that invites the experiences of all. For the present, their current expedition to DC served as a learning experience for the committee as they engaged in activities that considered the foundations of American democracy: its aspirations, successes, and setbacks. Nicole Brown, the project manager for the Civic Engagement Task Force, has been planning for weeks to make the trip structured and informative, with co-leader Allison Stephens.
The faculty leaders planned a comprehensive trip that included visits to the National Archives and Capitol Hill, and meetings with Mercersburg alums working in government, politics, and law. Brown hopes that the experience will influence the students to think about citizenship with a greater sense of purpose and opportunity to make change.
To gain an understanding of the current pedagogy of civic engagement, task force members have worked with the Institute of Citizens and Scholars in Washington, D.C., and held discussions with the Wake Forest Program for Leadership and Character. From the vast scholarship of experts in the field, the task force will work to build Mercersburg’s program over the course of the next three-plus years.
Ruby Shang, a member of the Civic Engagement Council and Student Council Vice President, explained that civic engagement is vital: "There are obligations that everyone should have as a citizen, for example, being aware and realizing how we can contribute to the community around us. I believe it is important to be actively engaged in the process of making decisions and being an informed citizen." While reflecting on her experiences conversing with Mercersburg alumni on the trip, Shang said, "They have already graduated from the school and have a deeper insight into this field, which was so interesting."
Moving forward,the Civic Engagement group plans to share its work with the rest of the school community in a school meeting on October 13. The Civic Engagement Task Force will actively shape the wide range of initiatives geared towards nurturing lasting civic skills within our community. The active participation of students and their input will be a fundamental pillar of this process, ensuring that the program resonates deeply with the Mercersburg that is beloved by current students and alumni and also continues to address the ever-evolving needs of our community effectively.