Spelman College – Empowering Women Toward More Civic Engagement

Marybeth Gasman, associate dean for research and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair in Education and a Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, shows how Spelman College in Atlanta is making a significant effort to boost community engagement programs so that students understand and appreciate their responsibility to partner with others and find creative solutions for the most pressing challenges of our time.

Spelman College is a powerhouse in terms of changing the lives of young Black women and contributing to society. The historically Black, liberal arts college boasts a 91 percent retention rate and a six-year graduation rate of 76 percent, which is well above the national average of 63 percent. What is even more impressive about Spelman’s accomplishments is the fact that 44 percent of its students are Pell Grant recipients. Most colleges and universities with high numbers of Pell Grant-eligible students are not able to hit these retention and graduate levels because low-income students typically take longer to graduate given their lack of resources.

Spelman has been named the top Historically Black College or University (HBCU) in the country by U.S. News and World Report for the past 17 years and is ranked number two by the magazine in terms of social mobility. It is highly ranked and considered for its innovation, undergraduate education, production of women in the STEM fields, and liberal arts curriculum.

Jilo Tisdale

Spelman College, also an exemplar in terms of community engagement, has its sights set on being recognized by the Carnegie Foundation through its Community Engagement Classifications. According to Jilo Tisdale, director of the Bonner Office of Civic Engagement at Spelman College, “Community Engagement creates space to transform theoretical concepts to real-time understanding essential to leadership development.” She added, “When our Spelman students leave our campus, they will become influencers and decision-makers in every aspect of their lives: at family dinner tables, in Fortune 500 boardrooms, on battlefields, in operating rooms, on runways, in classrooms and on legislative floors.”

Tisdale believes that for students to succeed, they need to “master academic content and learn the rubrics of building effective leadership toolkits, but they must also understand and appreciate their responsibility to partner with others and find creative solutions for the most pressing challenges of our time.” She considers community engagement a gift and notes that it enables Spelman students the opportunity to understand and appreciate the responsibilities they have to society more fully.

Spelman was an early adopter of the Carnegie Elective Classification for Community Engagement serving as one of 14 institutions across the country, and the only HBCU, to help pilot and develop the classification. They were classified in the 2006 cycle but did not reclassify in 2016. Now as Spelman works on its 2026 application for the community engagement classification, the institution is highlighting several different initiatives, including the SpelREADS Literacy Program, which offers Spelman students the chance to offer one-on-one, tutoring in literacy to Atlanta Public School students. Tisdale explained that “APS students who participate in SpelREADS make gains in closing their gap to grade-level reading that is double that of their peers who have not participated in SpelREADS.” To date, over 200 APS students have been served during the 2022-2023 academic year.

Another program that Spelman will highlight in its application is the Refugee and Forced Migrations service-learning course, in which Spelman students align their academic work with fieldwork that places them in collaboration with community partners in nearby Clarkston, Georgia. For over four decades, Clarkston has hosted refugees from a large variety of countries, resulting in it being known as “the most diverse square mile in America.” Tisdale shared, “The opportunity to work with and alongside refugees and immigrants in the Clarkston community gives Spelman students a deeper understanding of global migration and the complex systems involved than they can gain by studying texts and maps. Working in the community transforms something potentially distant and foreign into something approachable.” Opportunities like this one provide students the chance to help community members “in real time at a time when the world’s problems seem insurmountable.”

Tisdale thinks it is highly important that other HBCUs and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) overall apply for the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification. Why? Because “they are doing the work.” Community engagement is a central and foundational value at HBCUs. It is part of the ethos of campus with students, faculty, and staff being invested in both the success of their institutions as well as that of the community. As Tisdale shared, “We’re doing the work and our methods, our innovations, our voices, and our impacts should be included in the conversation about community engagement and higher education.”

HBCUs and other MSIs can benefit from highlighting their philosophy of holistic support, both community and civic engagement. Earning national recognition for the work that these institutions have been doing for decades is an important milestone for both MSIs and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching/ACE Classifications partnership.

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