Civic House has been an incredible experience for us as first year college students. It has provided us with a community, a support network, and opportunities to see all our new school and city have to offer.
One aspect of Civic House is mandatory “live,” “learn,” and “serve” hours, in accordance with our three pillars. The learn hours involve attending educational events around campus. Our favorites in the fall semester were a panel on Trump’s first year, which included Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and a presentation on the lives of North Korean citizens with a guest speaker who shared her experience as a North Korean defector. But our favorite part of Civic House is the community it provided us at a large school like GW.
It was easier to make friends as a part of Civic House because we all belonged to an established group and knew we had certain values in common. We skipped the typical “what’s your major” or “what’s your dorm,” and we were able to delve into deeper topics right off the bat, such as our previous experiences with service or why we were drawn to certain causes. Quickly we learned Xavier loves plants more than people, Jack is extremely politically moderate except on immigration, and some of us immediately connected over our passion for empowering women and minorities. Over the semester, we’ve gotten to know each other more deeply through class and completing our live, learn, and serve hours. Working together in class and on outside projects has allowed us to teach and learn from each other. After attending a meeting of one of Ben’s clubs, Ali understands the pros and cons of sanctuary cities. After enduring Ali’s many rants about LGBTQ+ representation in media, Ben recognizes instances of bi-erasure.
Completing our live hours means participating in activities open to every member of the group. It’s basically forced, but welcome, bonding. In our first week, we visited the famous Washington Monument with the only people we knew in the city at that point. Lucky for us, our senses of humor vibed pretty quickly (or at least we were all nervous enough to laugh whenever anyone else spoke). Every other sentence was either “Did you know Kerry Washington went to GW?” or “Oh. My. God. Is that the Washington Monument?” referring to anything but the Washington Monument. Tess had the fantastic idea to act out Nic Cage’s National Treasure as best as we could remember it, and then Ben got up to do his version, which definitely started as National Treasure, and then morphed into Night at the Museum and maybe part of a dream he had one time. Now, at the end of our first semester, we’ve spent enough time together that Ben can do spot-on impressions. Like when he was pretending to be Tess and he made a confused face, and then she unknowingly made the exact same face in reaction because she hadn’t realized it was something she did.
Now that we know each other pretty well, we know who to turn to in any situation: go to Maureen for practical advice, Abby if you need pepper spray, or Caitlin if you just want to be engulfed in a giant pile of pillows after, say, accidentally setting off the fire alarm. Along with the community among our peers, Civic House provides a support network of more experienced members of the GW community. From the sophomore mentors, to the program coordinator (Colleen Packard, who is literally our mom), and the professors involved with the Civic House program, we have countless people to turn to in a crisis of any size.
Being involved in the Civic House program as a freshman smoothed a transition we were both really nervous about. It gave us a community and a support network in a brand new city miles from home, and motivation to take advantage of the countless opportunities GW offers.
-Tess & Ali
My involvement in Civic House has given me the opportunity and the tools to pursue my passions and allowed me to grow and achieve goals I never would have dared to set in high school. The Civic House program included a mandatory fall course called Citizen Leadership, taught by Dr. Wendy Wagner. This class involved a semester-long group project on a topic of our choosing centered around serving the local community and eventually presenting a proposal at the Nashman Center Symposium for Engaged Scholarship. The proposal required collaboration between GW students and outside community organizations that could result in a measurable difference in our topic area. This assignment seemed daunting at the beginning of the year, but the class approached it step by step, and Dr. Wagner and our program coordinator Colleen were dedicated to all of our successes and offered themselves as available resources throughout the class. My group formed because we were all passionate about LGBTQ+ issues. I had been interested in LGBTQ+ issues for a while, but I didn’t really know how to get involved in high school. This project gave me the opportunity to pursue my passion and the tools to do it effectively.
The final proposal was broken down into a number of separate presentations, each about one aspect the proposal would need to address; as my group worked on each piece, we applied a new concept we had learned in class. For example, in researching the community in its context, we practiced approaching the community we were serving without assuming its needs, and in researching the issue more in depth, we practiced seeking an issue's root cause rather than repeatedly easing its symptoms. Along with each of these stepping stone presentations, the class required a certain number of service hours relating to our group’s topic, as well as interviews with community and student leaders who worked in our topic area. At the beginning of this year, I never would have believed I could conduct an interview with a community leader. But my work group, Dr. Wagner, and Colleen were all there for me if I needed them, and my time with Civic House thus far has shown me that I am capable of more than I assume, and that every big, seemingly impossible goal can be broken down into smaller, very doable tasks. Everything I have done with Civic House, whether it’s fulfilling my mandatory service hours or completing class assignments, has connected me with people who share my passions and opened doors for future opportunities to serve with the LGBTQ+ community in DC.
When it came time to do the final proposal, all our work throughout the semester had prepared us. My group designed a program where GW students would be trained by community partners to go into DC public and charter schools and give guest lessons on LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education. The data we had gathered throughout class suggested that more programs needed to be aimed at LGBTQ+ high schoolers, and that this type of program would have a positive effect. The contacts we had made in our service, especially the Peer Education Coordinator at SMYAL, Brandan, were helpful resources in designing the program and making sure it was feasible and that the schools would actually be receptive to our idea. After presenting our proposal, the other symposium attendees offered advice from their experiences with service in DC and working in DC high schools. One woman even gave us her contact information, because she knew someone at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education who might be interested in actually implementing a program like the one we had proposed. My first semester with Civic House has been an amazing experience and brought me to opportunities I never would have found on my own in areas I am passionate about.
Growing up, my dream job was always changing. One minute, I’d dream of being a princess who ends poverty. Another, I’d want to be a nurse and save lives. Then a therapist and teacher and social worker. No matter what, I wanted to tackle issues that affected people. While I have always felt a strong drive to commit to service and engage in leadership, I was clueless as to what role I could play or how to go about those things. I chose GW and accepted my invitation to Civic House hoping to discover more about how I could turn this drive into a slightly more practical plan. Civic House’s mandatory fall course, Citizen Leadership with Dr. Wagner, has helped me develop my answer and start to find my role in service.
Through this semester, I have learned a lot about how service is far from simple. There are bad ways and good ways and better ways. Intentions are certainly not everything. In high school, I set up volunteer opportunities for other students as the president of a community outreach club. Rather than evaluating the needs and assets of our community, I mostly found what was easy for me and for other students. I thought going to a food pantry once a month and making cards for children and the elderly, for example, made people feel good and were easy to commit to. I gave too much weight to numbers and volunteering for volunteerings sake. Going forward, I would approach working with a food pantry differently, asking what they need and how they prefer I get involved. For example, if they said they most needed money, which I’ve learned is often the case for food pantries, I would plan and host fundraisers. I would learn about the situations of the people who go to the food pantry and try to get their input and learn about root issues. I could use different platforms, such as social media and student organizations, to amplify the voice of the community. It was in Citizen Leadership that I learned such frameworks as “thin vs thick” and “asset-based” service, which have given me the language to critically reflect on past experiences and evaluate my future endeavors in service.
Another of these frameworks is the Six Pathways of Public Service, which breaks down service into Direct Service, Policy and Governance, Philanthropy, Community Organizing and Activism, Community Engaged Learning and Research, and Social Entrepreneurship. I always saw service as this hazy idea, but the pathways were the first thing that cleared up a lot of that haze. Since learning about the pathways, I have been able to evaluate which forms of service I feel most connected to, and which are most effective in different contexts. I am still exploring all the pathways, which I believe is important in finding my role in service, and I look forward to future service opportunities, both with Civic House and with outside community organizations.