Student Government and Enacting a Thriving Democracy

Anne Aichele, Director of Student Leadership Marymount University

March 6, 2019

In my role as the Student Government Association advisor at my institution, I often speak with the members of this organization about their frustrations with what they perceive as apathy from their peers on campus. Disinterest in running for and holding elected positions, poor voter turnout for campus-wide elections, and a lack of participation in open community meetings has left many of them wondering – why are students not interested in speaking their minds and contributing to change on campus? Is this just an issue on our campus, or is this perceived apathy just the new norm?

I also share this frustration and ask these questions when speaking with colleagues and peers, both on my campus and more broadly in the field. From my limited perspective, the answers are diverse and, at times, contradictory. In speaking with a colleague on my campus, their perspective is that students are not apathetic, they just choose to engage democratically in other venues and focus on challenges more in line with their own values. In popular culture and in media outlets nationwide, reports of high school and college students engaged in activism and advocacy are prevalent, suggesting that apathy is not a nationwide campus phenomenon. And yet, professionals in the field still focus on methods to increase civic and democratic learning and engagement.

The 2012 report, A Crucible Moment, highlights that although students are flocking to community service opportunities both prior to and during college, community service is not the same as democratic engagement. The same report suggests that “the longer a student’s stay in college, the wider the gap becomes between their endorsement of social responsibility as a goal of the college and their assessment of whether the institution provides the opportunities for growth in this area” (p. 5). According to Hoffman, Domegal-Goldman, King, and Robinson (2018), it is too common in for people in the United States, including students, to behave as observers to the democratic process, only engaging minimally in the process, instead of seeing themselves as active contributors and change agents.

A Crucible Moment, highlights both civic learning and democratic engagement as “an undisputed educational priority for all of higher education” (p. 2). Higher educational institutions have the unique opportunity to bring together individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences, as well as provide an environment of both theoretical consideration and practical application. The report emphasizes the need for “civic learning that includes knowledge, skills, values, and the capacity to work with others on civic and societal changes” (p. 6). As educators, we are uniquely situated to respond to this charge and are wholly responsible for contributing to environments where this vision is enacted and embraced. Hoffman et al. (2018) emphasize the following as values that are essential to establishing an interdependent, effective democratic society: dignity, humanity, decency, honesty, curiosity, imagination, wisdom, courage, community, participation, stewardship, resourcefulness, and hope.

In reflecting on my own experience working with the Student Government Association, I am reminded of an interaction between this body and a non-affiliated student in attendance at a recent meeting. The visiting student commented that the SGA could do more to promote their meetings to assure that students felt included and heard within the on-campus democratic process. One of the SGA members responded, accurately, that the meetings were marketed across campus using a number of methods, including social media and email, and that students should not expect personal invitations to attend. As the advisor to the group, I did not interrupt, but it did give me pause- what is the responsibility of the Student Government when it comes to convincing students to participate in the process? What obligation do they have in persuading other students to participate as active members of the campus community? Where does their duty end and individual commitment to democratic engagement begin? What is our role as higher educators to help define that line, and support students to making those connections?

According to Hoffman et al. (2018), the challenge is “to strike an appropriate balance: neither waiting passively and wishfully for students to make the imaginative leaps that lead to spontaneous learning, nor so enclosing and dominating their experience that they internalize unintended lessons about their own powerlessness and isolation” (p. 13). The authors encourage educators to consider the following things when reflecting on whether our current practices are creating intentional spaces for student civic learning and development:

  1. Shared responsibility and control

  2. Enabling spontaneity

  3. Embracing vulnerability

  4. Fostering relationships

  5. Building collective capacities

  6. Choosing empowering language 

  7. Providing support for learning from everyday interactions

  8. Transcending categories and boundaries

I understand that it is important that while I examine my own application of the actions suggested by Hoffman et al. (2018), I also equip my students with the knowledge and space to also examine their own behaviors and practices within this framework. It is only through this understanding that I can collaborate and build partnerships with my students that will empower them to challenge and support each other as active citizens on campus and in their greater communities.


Hoffman, D., Domagal-Goldman, J., King, S., & Robinson, V. (2018). Higher education’s role in enacting a thriving democracy: Civic learning and democratic theory of change. Washington, DC: NASPA.

The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. (2012). A crucible moment: College learning and democracy’s future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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