Expand local engagement for major programs

by Randy Wilde

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the last day of classes. Projects and essays have been turned in and final exams are just days away. You may be too in the zone to pan out and ask yourselves what you’ve accomplished this semester, this year, this college career. But really try to rack your brains to discover what value has come out of the countless projects, papers and classes you’ve completed thus far in your academic journey. I’m sure all of us could say we’ve gained invaluable knowledge, skills and perspective (in some classes more than others). To be sure, personal growth and intellectual enrichment are great, but aren’t we missing something? Knowledge and wisdom seem pointless if not applied to achieve concrete benefits in the community, whether on campus, around town or across the globe.

I have seen some truly inspiring examples of this type of applied scholarship. The Daily Aztec recently published an article describing the incredible efforts of the San Diego State business students behind Walu International. Instead of simply satisfying the requirements for a business class project, these students created a successful nonprofit organization to bring basic sanitation to impoverished villages in Papua New Guinea. A former refugee from Sudan and three of his engineering classmates at the University of San Diego designed and constructed solar panels to power a Sudanese village’s first school for their senior project.

These stories are truly incredible, but they are even more noteworthy because of their rarity and shocking contrast to the norm. Any student will admit most classes are just about earning the grade and moving on. There is rarely any element of hands-on application or community outreach in the majority of classes. What good is a knowledge-producing institution that does not export that knowledge, energy and expertise for the good of the community?

SDSU is famous for its status as a small research university, but the research and outreach should not be limited to professionals.

Professors are great at giving us the knowledge we’ll need in our future careers and condensing conventional wisdom from current events and developments. What they seldom recognize, however, is the potential for action in the present. Students can easily wade into local environmental, political and social issues in a more experiential learning forum. We can make changes at home, at work and on campus; contact experts in the field or elected representatives; design and build original creations (concrete or abstract) or conduct new research on previously ignored issues. There’s no reason these experiences should be limited to graduate work. Professors and students would both be better served by this kind of teaching method than solely relying on one-way information transfer via Microsoft PowerPoint. We’re tired of classes based on transmitting information from lecture notes to Scantrons.

The academic experience of students could be enriched profoundly by applying classroom learning in the field to create concrete positive change in the real world. Not to mention the incredible things motivated students such as those filling our campus could imagine, design, create and innovate.

Of course, many courses are about fundamentals, memorization, principles and theories. It might seem difficult to think of ways to apply Economics 101 or Chemistry 200. I’m not suggesting we forget the basics. What we need to do a better job of though, is making clear the basics are most valuable when designed to prepare a student for active community engagement. Knowledge without purpose is meaningless. Notes, projects, papers, research and exams not ultimately aimed at stewardship and engagement are pointless. At the very least, every final project, senior project or thesis should involve an element of active engagement or implementation. It’s beneficial for the students and even better for the community.

This idea of applied scholarship is the future of our school. The California State University system was created to serve the community. Service doesn’t just mean preferred admission status for local students, it means giving back to the community. Especially considering the size and research power of our university, SDSU has incredible potential as a center of community-building growth and innovation.

So as we transition from this year to the next, from the current SDSU president to a new one, or from the academic realm to the real world, we must remember we have the power and responsibility to achieve more than tenure or a degree.

—Randy Wilde is an ISCOR senior.

—The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.