Aday ponders civic-engagement success

  • Aday in DRDavid Aday (back row, right) is surrounded by students and patients in the Dominican Republic.

    Aday in DR

There is something profoundly remarkable about the high-end civic-engagement model at William and Mary that rapidly is becoming common knowledge among service communities and peer institutions, alike. It is a model that no one has scrutinized more closely than has David Aday.

During the past several years, Aday, professor of sociology, has become a virtual godfather to some of the most successful international-service projects under way. As faculty mentor and advisor, he has helped undergraduates turn medical-relief initiatives into sustainable community-building ventures that are improving circumstances for thousands of the world’s most-impoverished people. In the process, he has been exposed to the seminal secret behind William and Mary’s ability to impact the world. At the same time, he has embarked on a new and innovative mode of teaching that has implications far beyond the sociology classrooms of Morton Hall.

Ironically, Aday was “pestered” into getting involved, first by Jason Starr (’06), who as an undergraduate initiated the William and Mary Medical Mission Corps (WMMMC), and later by students who had served in Costa Rica.

Starr came home from his first medical mission trip to Central America disillusioned because the students had provided only a short-term fix to a longstanding problem—“had put a Band-Aid on a man with chronic illness,” according to Aday. Meanwhile, as a student in a criminal-justice seminar taught by Aday, Starr heard the professor talk about models of community building that had been experimented with relative to crime control. Aday discussed how “top-down interventions,” in which laws are made, police officers are hired and people are put in jail, generally are ineffective because they do not address root causes. Starr asked Aday whether that kind of logic could be applied to health problems. Aday ultimately conducted a class for students who served the WMMMC, and later he joined them as a field researcher to ground the project in scientific methodologies.

Although many of the students consider his contributions essential, Aday explained that his involvement is as an auxiliary. “From the beginning, we have counted on the initiative of the students to chart the way, and we’ve tried to come along as very egalitarian guides,” he said. “Certainly I couldn’t do this work. It takes the energy and stamina and enthusiasm, the commitment and dedication, that the students bring to the effort.” Indeed, Aday called such student dedication the secret behind the College’s successful civic-engagement culture.

As far as developing new teaching strategies, Aday explained that the need to acquaint non-sociology majors with an understanding of ethnographic research principles that enable them to become true partners with the communities they serve led him to pursue a model of “inquiry-based education.”

“It involves a kind of teaching—hands-on, face-to-face, outside the classroom—that I’ve always valued,” he said. In a sense, the method represents a future for education. “I think that the building-block, stair-step approach to higher education is being challenged,” he said. “I don’t think the former method is fundamentally wrong, I just think we’re finding that there are other ways of doing things that are extraordinarily rich and productive.”

As administrators at William and Mary seek ways to further civic-engagement opportunities for undergraduate students, Aday is supportive of efforts to ease the levels of sacrifice students have had to make in order to pursue their desires to make positive impacts in communities in Virginia as well as others worldwide.

“I believe knowledge can make a difference, can be transformative,” he explained. “I would like the College to position itself to be able to play a greater role.” Aday, however,  cautioned that students remain the key to achieving additional successes.

“We can nurture it, but we can’t make it happen,” Aday said concerning institutional support. “It’s only the students who bring this profound dedication. Part of their willingness to find the resources is evidence that they’re the right people to be leading the work.”