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New Civic Advising Program Helps Students Find their Engagement Match

A person in a yellow Pitt shirt, gray hat and face mask waves at someone while holding a gallon of milk

In a year of heightened civic activity tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice initiatives, Pitt students have a wealth of opportunities to dive in and become involved. Thanks to the efforts of the Student Government Board (SGB), students now have a resource to connect them to the civic opportunities that inspire them most—and they could soon have a hub for engagement across campus.

The Civic Advising Program—which quizzes students on civic, community and engagement interests to connect them with the civic advisors and experiences that best fit their interests—launched this semester as the Year of Engagement began

Kathryn Fleisher, a 22-year-old senior and SGB board member, said she and other board members had been working for years on way to better connect students to civic and community opportunities across campus. When she co-created the proposal for the Year of Engagement with executive vice president Cedric Humphrey and student Scott Glaser, they recognized it was an opportunity to advance their previous work.

“We looked around and realized there wasn’t structured guidance to meaningfully connect students to the various opportunities on campus, so civic advising came about in order to showcase all Pitt has to offer,” Fleisher said. “This is just an additional tool that goes hand in hand with the resources and energy being put behind the Year of Engagement.”  

Take the quiz, get involved

What are your interests? What’s important to you? Take the civic pathway survey, then schedule an advising session.

The civic advisors will help walk you through what kind of opportunities would be a good fit for you, what student, staff or faculty leadership on campus you should connect with, and what you can do to map out a meaningful plan of engagement during your time at Pitt.

Fleisher, who is executive director of the nonprofit gun violence prevention organization Not My Generation, serves as a civic advisor along with more than a dozen student, staff, faculty and community mentors. The idea is to help students find opportunities on campus or in Pittsburgh that are connected to community engaged learning and research, community organizing and activism, direct service, philanthropy, policy and governance, or social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility.

The program is offering 35 to 40 hours of undergraduate civic advising per week with an average of 75 to 80 virtual sessions per week, said Fleisher.

Madison Ricker, a 21-year-old senior who is a civic advisor and serves on the program’s stakeholder council, said she was interested in civic engagement when she arrived at Pitt, but didn’t know where to find the right groups for her interests until she met Fleisher.

“I was very lucky to meet Kathryn my sophomore year, who had already been involved in the engagement space,” she said. “It was really a matter of happenstance.”

Tyler Viljaste, a 21-year-old senior who is vice president and chief of cabinet on the SGB, said the civic engagement program helps students wade through the tide of options available at Pitt to find what’s right for them before they become overwhelmed.

“Pitt does a great job of having myriad opportunities for civic engagement. The problem for a student who takes a non-traditional path of civic engagement—you could have someone who never even volunteered in high school coming to Pitt and not knowing how to get involved civically—is there’s no one way to go. There was no centralized location that could take you in as an individual, learn your interests and guide you in the correct direction. It was almost always the student had to find things for themselves and advise themselves.” 

While the civic advising program is an important start, Fleisher said she would ultimately like to see a space on campus that serves as a hub for civic engagement efforts of all sorts.

A woman in a red top standing in front of a city scape
“This project came out of Pitt Civics, where the goal was to aggregate all the opportunities for engagement on campus. That became a wider project for establishing a center or hub for civic engagement, which we’re now working on in collaboration with PittServes,” she explained.

All three students agreed that a go-to source for civic engagement is more critical now than ever before.

“Right now with COVID-19, it’s especially challenging because students are looking for ways to connect with the world and channel their frustration, fears and sorrows,” said Fleisher. “It’s been difficult plugging people in, but the University community’s been especially resilient and creative in providing alternate opportunities.”

Viljaste said an engagement hub falls in line with Pitt’s standards of excellence and history of community involvement.

“Pitt is so great in so many ways and we’re always looking to improve and always aspire to greatness. We hold ourselves to an incredibly high standard as an institution. I strongly believe Pitt needs to take the direction of institutionalizing and centralizing civic engagement, and making it more relevant, meaningful and accessible to students of all backgrounds than it already is.”

Ricker said that while 2020 was a groundbreaking year for civic engagement and civic advising, students and campus leaders should establish systems that are set up for what’s to come.

“We launched during an election year, and a rather large election year, but I don’t want students to lose sight of all the work still ahead. There are so many ways you can get involved,” she said. “It’s easy to feel small and like you don’t have a say in what’s going on and that’s just not true.”