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Study Finds Jefferson Public Citizens Program Meeting Its Objectives

The University of Virginia’s Jefferson Public Citizens program, a competitive research-service program for undergraduates that focuses on academics and civic engagement at the local, national or international level, appears to be accomplishing its objectives, according to findings by Youth-Nex: The U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development.

The findings are part of a collaboration between Youth-Nex and the Office of University Community Partnerships, which oversees the program, that will lead to a multi-year evaluation plan to examine the program’s impact. Youth-Nex conducted one-on-one interviews with students, asked students to complete surveys, had faculty directly assess student work, and surveyed community partners.

“The assessment has greatly improved our knowledge of JPC’s strengths and areas in need of improvement,” Jefferson Public Citizens director Megan Raymond said. “The JPC staff wants to ensure that the program is meeting its goals and truly serving the needs of students, faculty and the community.”

The initiative grew out of the University’s 2008-09 strategic planning process known as the Commission on the Future of the University. The initiative was first proposed by the Virginia 2020 Commission on Public Service and Outreach, then advanced by the President’s Commission on Diversity and Equity. Raymond further developed the idea, and the Board of Visitors provided seed funding.

Teams of students selected for the program conduct a research-service project, advised by a faculty member and mentored by a graduate student. Students then publish and present their work.

One example: A water sanitation project in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, had engineering students exploring ways to use a geographic information system to learn about and aim to improve water filtration systems there.

More locally, School of Architecture students are seeking to provide egalitarian access to Charlottesville’s City Market.

Senior Vice Provost J. Milton Adams said one of the program’s aims is “to deepen learning by connecting actions by students outside of class – public service – to the academic subjects taught in the classroom.”  

Adams previously served as vice provost of academic affairs, promoting academic enhancement programs for undergraduate, graduate and professional students, including those that promote undergraduate research and the Jefferson Public Citizens program.

“Learning assessments help us improve our programs and prepare our students for the next step in their life,” he said. “Students often say these programs, such as JPC, change how they think about themselves and their relation to the world, and that is an important goal of an undergraduate education at the University of Virginia.”

According to Maryfrances Porter, director of Youth-Nex Program Evaluation and Community Consultation, the collaboration between Jefferson Public Citizens and Youth-Nex uses rigorous scientific inquiry to examine the program’s impact on student learning and civic engagement.

“I am thrilled with Youth-Nex’s assessment and its ability to dig deeply into the civic and academic learning components of JPC,” Raymond said.

According to Raymond, the initial evaluation found that, in general, the program is having the desired impact.

“Students report JPC as contributing to both their academic growth, as well as personal growth in cultural sensitivity,” she said. “What is also clear is the incredible importance that students place on this experience, which is an opportunity to travel, to work directly with a community to solve a real-world problem, and to produce a publishable report.

“We now have a solid baseline of information about our students’ work and accomplishments from which to set benchmarks for the program going forward,” she added.

According to adviser Loren Intolubbe-Chmil, “JPC is an opportunity for undergraduates to ground their four years at U.Va. in engaged scholarship, taking coursework and putting it into practice.”

“It’s important to see an increase in students’ cultural awareness and learn how much they value engaging with the community as part of their U.Va. education,” Raymond said.

The findings from Youth-Nex’s assessment will be incorporated into the University’s Fifth-Year Interim Report and the Quality Enhancement Plan Impact Report for The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, also known as SACS.

Findings include:

• Overall, the Jefferson Public Citizens program appears to be accomplishing the academic and civic engagement objectives it was set out to support.

• About half of the 2011 participating students reported substantial growth in their understanding of the community, as well as in their comfort within the community.

• On average, about half of the 2011 participants reported growth in their cultural sensitivity.

• Students reported increased confidence in their research and public speaking skills.

• All manuscripts and presentations consistently met the academic standards for the University; however, faculty assessments show that there is room to enhance the expectations and quality of the manuscripts and presentations.

• There is room for programmatic growth in understanding how faculty use the graduate student mentor and ensuring that the community partner’s experience is positive and productive across the board.

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