Civic learning at the edge: Transformative stories of highly engaged youth

by Price-Mitchell, Marilyn, Ph.D., FIELDING GRADUATE UNIVERSITY, 2010, 186 pages; 3422334


Why some young people become highly engaged in the social and political issues of a democracy and others do not is a topic of much speculation and research. This study explored how initiative is nurtured through public service and how challenging civic learning experiences are transformed into sustained civic action.

Through the use of narrative inquiry, this qualitative study explored the lived experiences of a diverse and highly purposeful group of social and politically engaged college students. Forty-four participants, nominated by adult civic leaders and educators in 20 states, completed questionnaires on their civic engagement experiences. Twenty-two students participated in additional semi-structured interviews.

Several strands of multi-disciplinary literature offered foundational insights into understanding civically engaged youth. The first was the literature on child and adolescent development, particularly Erik Erikson’s theory of identity and initiative. Other core contributions included research on initiative by Reed Larson, youth purpose by William Damon, self-efficacy by Albert Bandura, youth moral development by James Youniss and Miranda Yates, and citizenship education by Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne.

Results suggest that highly engaged adolescents overcome intellectual, interpersonal, and intrapersonal challenges as a result of civic involvement; benefit from adult scaffolding; and are personally transformed by demanding service experiences. They define their civic identity as a way of life rather than a collection of service activities on a resume. These purposeful youth gradually shift from external to internal motivators, discover value in small successes, and make developmental gains in other life arenas.

The study found that overcoming intrapersonal challenges in real-world service environments that involve face-to-face interactions with people who are suffering were transformative to the development of initiative, purpose, and civic identity. Also important was the role that high school educators and other non-parent adult mentors played in the development of self-efficacy, a characteristic of civically engaged youth.

Nine characteristics of engaged young citizens were identified. While initiative, purpose, moral reasoning, moral development, self-efficacy, critical thinking, self-reflection, ideology, and civic identity have been studied by numerous researchers, this study found a relationship between them that, through further research, may offer a new conceptual understanding of citizenship development.

Keywords: positive youth development, political engagement, youth activism, millennials, political socialization, civic efficacy, transformative learning, service learning

AdviserJudith Stevens-Long
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsSocial research; Social psychology; Developmental psychology
Publication Number3422334

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