UR program explores college and civic life

In its inaugural year students in the Experiencing Civic Life program visited the Charles Settlement House in northwest Rochester. (Photo: UR/Mary Cooke)

The University of Rochester’s Experiencing Civic Life program for high school students offers a taste of college life while also learning about the humanities. A couple of weeks ago, roughly 15 juniors and seniors came to campus and explored texts ranging from Greek literature to the “The Declaration of Independence.”

“The goals of the program are … to think through some big questions about what it means to be a citizen (and) who gets to be a citizen,” says Joan Rubin, UR’s Dexter Perkins Professor in History, who helps run the program.

The program’s roots trace to 2015 when Rubin became the founding director of the University of Rochester Humanities Center, which focused on examining different cultures in all forms by offering a variety of programs for students, faculty and the general public. After the Humanities Center launched, Casey Blake, a professor at Columbia University, reached out to Rubin, giving her an idea for a program similar to its Freedom and Citizenship offering.

“(It is a) humanities-based program that introduces high school students, primarily underserved minority students or students who will be first-generation college students, (to) humanities texts (and) writings that have relevance today,” Rubin says.

The program focuses on historical texts and the history of politics, literature, and philosophy, and analyzes ideas to help think through issues in American society today.

The Freedom and Citizenship college seminar and academic enrichment program at Columbia began in 2009 as a partnership between Columbia’s Double Discovery Center and the Center for American Studies. Rubin decided that it would be a good idea to replicate the program at UR and began working on setting it up. She started by working with East High School, given its close relationship with the university, to get students into the program.

UR applied for a grant from the Teagle Foundation, which had been helping fund Columbia’s program.

“We were among the very first universities to apply to them for our own version of what was essentially the Columbia program,” Rubin says.

In the summer of 2019, Experiencing Civic Life went from an idea to reality. Eight students from East High would stay at the UR campus for two weeks to learn about the humanities and experience college life. While it was a success, COVID-19 brought disruption. The program stayed alive remotely.

“We couldn’t do any of the things that we had hoped to do, like field trips and experiencing campus life; that was out the window,” Rubin says.

After its first year, the UR program was awarded $265,000 from the Teagle Foundation. Upon receiving the grant, Rubin expanded the program’s reach. Now, any city resident is eligible to apply online. Rubin also works with the Upward Bound program at Monroe Community College to network with potential participants.

Aside from living on campus for two weeks, students have the opportunity to prepare for college in other ways. Improving writing and critical thinking skills is a top priority for the program.

“(Writing and critical thinking) skills are transferable to whatever you want to study in college,” Rubin says. “Even if you aren’t going to be an engineer, you need to know how to evaluate problems, and come up with solutions to them.”

Participants also take trips over their two-week stay to cultural attractions including the Memorial Art Gallery and the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor. Ultimately, Rubin hopes the program will pave the way for a better future for everyone involved by looking at the past and examining ways for improvement.

“If our society is going to get out of this terrible hole that we’ve dug for ourselves now, we need people of all backgrounds, and all races and all religious persuasions to come together,” Rubin says.

Rylan Vanacore is a Rochester Beacon intern and a student at Rochester Institute of Technology. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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