CIVICUS: A Short History
A Bright Beginning
In January 1999, the University of Maryland announced a new living and learning program called CIVICUS, with Dr. Sue Briggs as its program director. The inaugural class of 67 first-year students arrived in August of that same year. And from the beginning, CIVICUS was unique.
This groundbreaking program was to be centered on five tenets of a civil society: citizenship, leadership, scholarship, community service-learning, and community building in a diverse society. CIVICUS would challenge students both intellectually and socially, with first- and second-year students living under the same roof. The mission was simple: To create an engaging and active learning community and encourage each other to explore new perspectives.
Situated adjacent to McKeldin Mall at the heart of campus, CIVICUS would come to find a home in Somerset Hall, which has since seen over 900 associates pass through its doors. The composite nature of their classes and the distinctive living environment within Somerset Hall encouraged students to get to know one another, share traditions, and engage in constructive classroom discussions. These unique characteristics defined the program and set it apart from other living and learning programs.
Its rigorous academic requirements and emphasis on extracurricular activities made CIVICUS a highly selective and sought-after learning community. Talented and accomplished students were identified by the program director and invited to join based on their holistic approach to the social sciences, history of service, leadership roles, and diversity.
Since its inception, the CIVICUS curriculum has been both intensive and interactive. Students are required to complete a total of 14 credit hours to earn a CIVICUS citation. The final semester of the program consists of a capstone internship, which allows students to gain valuable, real-world experience in an array of disciplines--from non-profits and advocacy organizations to Fortune 500 companies and the federal government.
The CIVICUS curriculum has covered an array of topics over the years, but a perennial favorite was Robert Putnam’s social analysis called Bowling Alone, which explores the shifting definitions over time of the quintessential “American community.” Students have also studied the corollaries between social capital, networking, and civil listening, which have been part of the program since the beginning with the introduction of Stephen Carter’s seminal work, Civility.
Many of the program’s service-based traditions can be traced to the program’s beginning, including PB&J sandwich-making, wherein students assemble over 1,000 ready-to-eat sandwiches for the Capital Area Food Bank, Martha’s Table, and S.O.M.E. (So Others Might Eat). On-campus service projects included Read-a-Thons for the University of Maryland’s Disability Support Services, which helps visually impaired students with the required reading material. “Christmas in April,” when students would renovate neighboring homes and gardens, quickly became a favorite.
Two annual weekend events would come to stand out as particularly memorable for most students: opening weekend and the CIVICUS retreat. As a way to ease the difficult transition to college, CIVICUS instituted a series of opening weekend events centered around service, fellowship, and fun. A barbeque in the Somerset Hall courtyard brought students and alumni together and gave freshmen the chance to meet fellow CIVICUS associates.
The CIVICUS retreat is another important weekend event for the program. It has provided a unique opportunity for students to network and socialize off campus in the relaxing setting. Programming has included service opportunities, discussions on how to grow the program, and time to play games and unwind. Alumni return regularly to volunteer as retreat leaders.
CIVICUS associates have always enjoyed a close bond with their peers, due in part to the shared academic and residential spaces of Somerset Hall. It is common for passionate classroom discussions to spill out into the hallways and lounges. This strong sense of community was also present through the multiple service projects offered each semester, bringing students together to give their time to on- and off-campus neighbors.
The sense of community has been so strong, in fact, that some CIVICUS associates have found their spouse within the program, and others have remained lifelong friends. No matter what events shook the world close or far--whether it was a Maryland sports championship or a national tragedy, the CIVICUS community experienced them together.
Achievement and Impact
With community-building at the heart of the program, it’s no wonder that CIVICUS students and alumni are consistently among the most influential members of the University of Maryland community. Many have led student organizations across the spectrum, including student government, honor societies, club sports, Greek life, and service, and have received dozens of honors and awards for their achievements, including over 65 Omicron Delta Kappa (ODK) National Leadership Honor Society Sigma Circle inductees and over 55 Phi Beta Kappa inductees.
And CIVICUS alumni’s success follows them after graduation. Many CIVICUS alumni have run for public office; served at the highest levels of national, state, and local government; worked in higher education; sat on the boards of non-profit and advocacy organizations; established companies; earned terminal degrees in their fields, and continued to volunteer in their communities.
When CIVICUS alumni reflect on their experience at the University of Maryland, many attribute their personal and professional success to the five central tenets of the program. These five principles support the values and mission of CIVICUS and provide a roadmap for alumni to stay connected with each other and with their communities. Through these endeavors, this one-of-a-kind organization has shaped countless communities in profound ways, and its impact will remain for years to come.