My sister and I were coming back from spring break, and on the drive to Amherst, rolling through the pastures on winding back roads, we started talking about finding community. My sister is a first-year student at UMass and I am a graduating senior, so together we encompass the spectrum of identity formation in college. While I am trying to brand my identity into something job-marketable, my sister is reflecting on how her identity is being shaped and formed. Community, we realized, is a major component of feeling safe and confident about yourself; being around like-minded people helps you feel accepted and allows you to grow. “I want to find other people who care about social issues,” my sister said. “People I can learn from and people I can learn with.”
As an older sister, I couldn’t have been more pleased, because I had the very same thought process when I was in her shoes, looking ahead to my sophomore year. For that reason I applied to the Citizen Scholars Program. Affectionately known as CSP, the two-year social justice program brings together 20 or so students into a cohort interested in affecting change. By taking a sequence of four courses together, these students develop a close community based on core values, such as equality and fighting injustice. Together, my cohort learned to challenge our views on what is possible, to care for ourselves and avoid burn-out, and to uncover and utilize tools for change. We also explored how public policy and grassroots organizing are important avenues for implementing progress and for mobilizing the power of the people.
Cohort 11 at the State House with Representative Ellen Story in 2010.
In addition to learning about social change in the classroom, we also served 60 hours of community service every semester at a site of our choice. I volunteered at the Amherst Survival Center in the food pantry, while others volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters, Capacidad, The Literacy Project, and other great nonprofit organizations. Giving back to the Amherst and Pioneer Valley communities showed us how we could immediately make an impact and work towards a better society. Through volunteering, we also encountered many of the concepts discussed in class, which introduced a deeper level of learning not often present in other courses.
The Citizen Scholars Program influenced the core of my identity, which is centered on social justice and service. Logistically, the program also helped me fulfill half of my Commonwealth Honors College requirements! All of the four courses are honors courses, and the last two are Capstone courses. This means I completed my final Capstone Project through CSP and was able to use my academic experience for the sake of social change. If you are not a CHC student, acceptance into CSP will also grant you acceptance into the Honors College.
CSP Graduation: Cohort 11 students with faculty and teaching assistants
I’m glad my sister and I were able to talk about how CSP is a great way to find a community of like-minded students. UMass is nationally recognized for its community service learning, and CSP single handedly shaped my identity around working towards a more just society. Applying to the Citizen Scholars Program was easily the most important academic decision I made in my undergraduate career.