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Tulane Gives Back - Chatting with Vincent Ilustre of the Center for Public Service

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opednews.com Headlined to H2 12/27/09

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I first met Vincent Ilustre in November. I was down in New Orleans on a volunteer trip. He spoke to our group one evening and I was fascinated by the program he runs at Tulane. Welcome to OpEdNews, Vincent. Please describe where you work on campus and what your office does.

I am the Executive Director of Tulane University's Center for Public Service. Our work focuses on assisting faculty members, students and community partners in their collaborative work; thereby supporting the public service graduation requirement. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, Tulane became the first Carnegie-ranked "high research activity" university to implement such a requirement.

As a graduate of the university, having received both my Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Sociology and MBA in Management and Marketing, I am thrilled that the university has taken this bold step to integrate public service into the curriculum. Tulane has always been involved in the issues important to the city of New Orleans, but this requirement formalizes a process by which we strategically bring students and faculty members to work in partnership with the local community.

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So, your own roots at Tulane run deep. Can you give some examples of what their public service activities might be? How have you decided what to include and how has the program grown since its inception?

Students are required to participate in a two-tiered academic public service graduation requirement. In their first two years, students must take a service learning course in the 100-300 level. Service learning combines academic course content with community service activities in a way that addresses a community specified need but at the same time allows students to see how theories they study in the classroom are put into practice in everyday lives. The second requirement gives students an opportunity to select from various academic activities in the 300-600 level. Options include taking another service learning course, participating in a public service internship, assisting in a faculty-led community based research project, taking part in an international service learning experience or designing their own public service independent study projects or honor's thesis. In determining the requirement, it was important that the experience was academically connected, meaningful, process-based and that they could be potentially transformative.

An example of a service learning course is an English course called "Aristotle in New Orleans" . In the course, students are learning about the rhetorical and dialectical methods that was used by Aristotle and other theorists. Using these methods, the Tulane students are then asked to coach debate teams in three local middle schools. This activity culminates in a debate competition between students from the three schools.

The program has grown exponentially. This academic year we will be offering 260 service learning courses and anticipate participation by roughly 2,750-3,000 students.

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Wow! The Tulane student body is particularly geared to public service, even before entering the university. Can you talk about that phenomenon?

We've made great strides in attracting students that are aligned with our mission to serve the community. Students who come to Tulane have an expectation that they will be members of the larger community outside of Tulane and that they can help shape the future of our community. Because of this, we have been fortunate to attract students that have strong records in community service while they were in high school.

We had 41,000 applications for 1,500 freshman slots this year an increase from the 36,000 applications the previous year and the 15,000 application that we received pre-Katrina. From surveys and anecdotal stories, these students tell us that our involvement in the local community was the key determining factor in their wish to attend the university. It speaks to this generation's need to be part of their local communities and to an extent answering the call to serve issued by President Obama.

That's so heartening. And it's especially noteworthy because of the dramatic drop off in applicants in 2006, the year following Katrina. Tulane's stellar community service component has become a model for universities in the area and beyond. Tell us about that, please.

There has been tremendous progress by universities nationwide towards engaging students in service in both curricular and non-curricular means. What has made Tulane unique is in our position as the first Carnegie "high research activity" (formerly called Carnegie I) university to implement a university-wide, undergraduate mandate for curricular public service. Even prior to Katrina, Tulane was making headway in becoming a model, having led a dissemination grant to six other universities that allowed them to utilize our faculty seminar model as well as our institutionalization techniques.

Post-Katrina, we are being seen by leaders in the field as a potential model for other universities in implementing a graduation requirement. We field at least two calls a month from our university colleagues inquiring about our progress and our implementation time lines. I get the distinct feeling that many of our colleagues want to see if we can succeed in doing this before they try to do something similar. The good news about all of this, is that we will be graduating our first class with the public service graduation requirement this spring so we should have more proof that other universities can take this route and succeed.

Hmm... Tulane as a light unto other universities; I like the sound of that. You've always had a reputation for sports, Greek life, and partying. Will the influx of community-minded students change the flavor of Tulane?

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Although our community orientation is attracting a different kind of Tulane student, we still provide many opportunities for students to engage in other activities. We believe that a community-oriented Tulane student is one that can also take part in sports and Greek activities. We want a well-rounded student who has many interests and engages in both curricular and non-curricular activities and also with what cultural experiences the city of New Orleans has to offer.

What a great mix Tulane offers. Anything else you'd like to add, Vincent before we wrap up?

Tulane's efforts in the community are not encapsulated solely in our undergraduate public service graduation requirement. Tulane is actively involved in the New Orleans community through other initiatives: advocating for education reform through the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, the creation and administration of community health clinics through our School of Medicine, building homes through our School of Architecture's City Center program, to name a few.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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