Students Learn to Be Civic Leaders

A student stands in the middle of the floor at the Edward Kennedy Institute, mic in hand.
Image credit: Lisa Abitbol
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

Toward the end of the summer break, 30 Wellesley students visited the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston, where they practiced empathy and understanding by taking on the roles of politicians representing a range of viewpoints in a mock Senate debate. Hailey Lunceford ’26 was assigned to be a Republican from Texas, “which is nowhere near what I am,” she says. But she got into it, even taking on a Southern drawl (her friends have now nicknamed her “Texas”), and she discovered the value of putting herself in the shoes of someone so different from her.

This exercise was part of Wellesley’s new Civic Action Lab, a three-day program in late August focusing on constructive dialogue, civic engagement, and learning—and leading—across differences. Offered through Career Education, future cohorts will be selected through a first-come, first-served process for all rising sophomores.

The goal of the lab is “to have students learn how to take their passions and move forward with them with an underlying foundation of purpose,” says Heidi Johnson, director of civic engagement at Wellesley. “The sweet spot is learning how to build relationships with people.”

“Talking about political and social issues can be nerve-wracking, but the program leaders made a comfortable environment for us,” says Aleah Ghiasuddin ’26, one of the participants. “And the more we talked with innovators and people who were trying to help with certain issues, the more we saw what was possible through talking to others.”

When Clara Ontal ’26 and Jade Kuan ’26 read the words “civic action” in the email they received in the spring inviting them to participate, they say they were reminded of advocacy and service work they had done in high school and had missed since coming to Wellesley: Ontal was part of the Hawaiʻi Youth Climate Coalition and Kuan volunteered at the American Red Cross. Both were eager for the chance to return to that kind of work. Angelique “Angel” Allen ’26 says she was drawn to the idea of getting more involved with the Boston community.

Johnson and Jen Pollard, executive director of Career Education and associate provost, wanted to attract a range of students from all backgrounds and departments. “The goal is to make participating in the Civic Action Lab a universal sophomore experience,” says Pollard.

I think it was life-changing for everyone who did it. I feel more empowered to go ahead and pursue starting something that will benefit my community.

Monica Xu ’26

Additionally, Johnson wanted students to see a range of ways, big and small, they could become engaged and involved with their community.

In addition to their visit to the Kennedy Institute, students traveled to Thompson Island to build trust and a sense of belonging, spent time at the Cambridge Innovation Center with civic accelerators, explored the complex issue of global food insecurity through an Oxfam hunger banquet, talked with faculty members from humanities, social science, and STEM departments over dinner, and installed the beautiful yarn art that wraps several trees in the Academic Quad.

Students experienced many standout moments during the program. Several spoke of relating to guest speaker Megan Burke, founder of Cuerd@s clothing, who shared her story about coming up with the idea to make embroidered tactile patches for clothing to offer a means of self-soothing for people suffering from anxiety.

“I learned that no interest is too niche,” says Simone Graziano ’26, “and no person is too small to make some sort of difference. It’s just about finding areas that you’re strongest in and then figuring out how that can kind of reflect outward toward your community.”

During the Outward Bound program on Thompson Island, the students were blindfolded for one team-building activity, and Mariam Sirage ’26 was reminded of lessons from her Muslim faith. “I had to trust a bit more and focus on letting go, and then it was a lot more enjoyable,” she says. “That’s what the whole Civic Action Lab seemed to be about: trusting the process.”

In general, students were surprised at the level of self-reflection the program involved, but they learned its value over the course of the three days. Allen ’26 enjoyed one of the exercises that asked students to develop their own mission statement. “Doing that made me realize how important it is to think about who I want to be—not just what I want to do as a job or a major. I need to affirm my mission each day, which will help me tune out the noise and check in with myself."

“Recognizing what you are good at allows you to help other people,” says Henrietta Martha ’26.

“I learned that community looks like so many different things,” says Lunceford.

The 18 faculty members who took part in the culminating dinners were inspired by the students’ growth over three short days. Yoolim Kim ’12, visiting lecturer in psychology, said that the students she met “felt they’d gained a sense of direction and place in the world, and as an instructor, it makes me excited to see how their studies and time in the classroom can then be distilled through that lens.”

On the last night, Pollard told the students that the Civic Action Lab was a precursor to an expanded vision for Wellesley’s planned Hillary Rodham Clinton Center for Citizenship, Leadership, and Democracy. She says she will never forget the students’ reactions when she shared that Secretary Clinton was the inspiration for the Civic Action Lab. She invited them to be involved in the inaugural summit on democracy Wellesley is hosting this spring, which will officially launch the HRC Center.

“I’ve been at Wellesley for eight years, and that was one of the highlights of my time here, seeing the emotion pouring out of students,” says Pollard.

Martha cried when she heard the news. “I kept thinking of my younger self, the self who was born and raised in southwest Detroit. … I never would have thought I’d have a connection to Hillary Rodham Clinton,” she says. “I thought of my dad, who passed away when I was young, and my mom, an immigrant, who raised me in a single parent household, and my grandmother and the community who raised me … My goal in life is always to give back to what I know and where I came from.”

Graziano called her mother. “My mom asked, ‘Oh, is someone going to be a political science major now?’ and I said no, I don’t think so,” says Graziano. “There were lots of majors and interests represented [in the Civic Action Lab]—we all come from different majors and areas of expertise—but we are all united under the umbrella of wanting to help people.”

Kim wished there had been a comparable program when she was a Wellesley student “to remind me that what I was learning wasn’t just for the purpose of doing well or for the grade, but could also be mobilized to do something bigger with. That’s what I think the students are gaining through HRCC.”

“I think it was life-changing for everyone who did it,” says Monica Xu ’26. “I feel more empowered to go ahead and pursue starting something that will benefit my community.”

The class of 2027 can look forward to an email in the spring semester with more information about joining the Civic Action Lab in August 2024.