Engagement exemplars: Stelljes' book reveals what made Srour 'tick'

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Drew Stelljes
recalls not quite knowing what to make of senior George Srour, a student whose name rapidly was becoming synonymous with community engagement at William & Mary in 2005. Stelljes, a director of the College's Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship (OCES), watched with fascination as Srour, a Sharpe Community Scholar, returned from a College-sponsored service trip to Uganda and proceeded to raise more than $35,000 to build an orphanage there.

"I wondered what makes this young man tick," Stelljes said. "Why is he so motivated beyond some of his peers who have seen similar instances of injustice in the world?"

Stelljes' fascination turned into research as he prepared the text for Service-Learning and Community Engagement: Cognitive Developmental Long-Term Social Concerns. He discovered that the motivation driving those whom he describes as "exemplars" was their psychological connection to members of community. He recounts the story of one research subject who was working in a soup kitchen without any emotional involvement when he found himself serving a high-school classmate.

"He started to reflect on, for the first time, his place in society, and he started to think about relative privilege, power affiliated with privilege, opportunity affiliated with privilege," Stelljes said.

As Stelljes sought to determine whether engagement in service-learning programs fosters actual cognitive development, he discovered that among exemplars a progression similar to his example occurred. Each had a background of service as part of an "informal or formal obligation," he wrote in the book. "Their motivation rested in fulfilling an obligation to family or school and supporting their personal interests. At some point, the service activity became more intense. "

That greater intensity prompted those who became exemplars to reflect on their place in society. "They perceived injustice in some manner that challenged their frame of reference," Stelljes said. "This reflection prompted self-examination of identity, which, in turn, initiated a personal assessment of assumptions about some social issue."

As co-director of OCES, Stelljes is determined bring service-learning opportunities, along with the appropriate scholarship, within reach of all undergraduates at William & Mary. His is a vision, he contends, that is consistent with the mandate given to all public institutions of higher education.

That mandate assumes that "we would be developing the future civic public leaders of our Commonwealth and our nation," he said. "Part of what we do is embedded in our roots."

(Related content: View the OCES video.)