Tufts Civic Semester to offer overseas service opportunities to incoming first-years

The two locations of the Tufts Civic Summer program: Urubamba, Peru and Kunming, China are marked on a map. (Madeleine Oliver / The Tufts Daily)

Incoming first-year students in the School of Arts and Sciences will be able to spend their first semester in Urubamba, Peru or Kunming, China while earning academic credit and completing service work through the Tufts Civic Semester, a new program jointly offered by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and the School of Arts and Sciences.

The program, announced by University President Anthony Monaco on Feb. 27, includes 12 semester hour units, according to Jennifer McAndrew, Tisch College’s director of communication, strategy and planning. Participating first-years will arrive on campus in early August and begin coursework for two classes, both of which will be taught by Tufts faculty. Every student will take Introduction to Civic Studies and another class that focuses on the culture and history of the region where the student will be going. Participants will also take an in-country language course, either Spanish or Mandarin, and receive internship credit for their volunteer work.

According to the program’s website, students will engage in service work related to “education, sustainability, community health, entrepreneurship, and more.”

“Civic Semester is intended to be embedded in the academic experience at Tufts,” McAndrew said.

The program is fully funded by tuition, and all financial aid that a student receives is applied to the Civic Semester, Dean of Tisch College Alan Solomont said. 

“[The Civic Semester] really should be open to all students,” Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Jim Glaser said.

Students participating in the program will complete on-campus orientation with their fellow classmates in September, according to Glaser. Glaser expressed his belief that completing regular orientation on campus with students who are not participating in the program will be a positive experience.

“They will go through orientation with all of the students they come back to,” Glaser said. “The beauty of this is that it … allows students to have a full [orientation] experience.”

Tisch College partnered up with Where There Be Dragons, a well-known program provider for academic gap semesters and years, according to Solomont.

“[Tisch College] looked at all the programs who do this just to pick the best one,” Solomont said.

In the program’s first year, it will admit 25 students. However, Solomont said that there is room for growth in the program, saying that it could expand to 100 more students in future years.

Diane Ryan, associate dean for programs and administration at Tisch College, said that the program may also expand in terms of how many locations are offered and expressed her hope that Civic Semester will eventually offer a program in Africa.

“We are planning to expand to other continents in future years,” Ryan said. “We hope that it will be very popular and that we will be adding more overseas locations.”

Though the programs are organized by Where There Be Dragons, Tisch College helped select the locations and chose Peru and China because of the opportunity students will have to learn and improve their language skills.

“We wanted to offer a Spanish-speaking country and one other [country],” McAndrew said. “And we thought a lot of students might be deeply interested in improving their Mandarin skills.”

Offering one program in a Spanish-speaking country was “an obvious choice,” Solomont said. “Chinese is increasingly popular and important, so we liked the mix.”  

No prior experience with Spanish or Mandarin is required, according to Jessye Crowe-Rothstein, the Tufts 1+4 program administrator at Tisch College.

“There is no language requirement to participate, and language classes will be offered at different levels to meet the needs of students with varying language backgrounds,” Crowe-Rothstein told the Daily in an email.

According to Ryan, students will be able to retake the language placement exam once they return from the semester abroad which is traditionally offered during orientation in September. 

The program is entirely optional, meaning that students must be admitted to Tufts and then decide to apply to it.

“We want people to self-select for this. We think that there will be a great demand for this because … it provides a transformational experience while they get credit, and we think that it will be the touchstone for everything students do from that time forward,” Ryan said.  

However, the program has practical benefits as well, Glaser said. He explained that the university would like to be able to admit more students in January, as there are fewer students on campus in the spring and therefore more available beds.

“We would like to be able to bring first-year students in in January because we have more beds that are available for them and this sort of evens out our fall and spring population,” Glaser said. “The university has a pragmatic interest in balancing spring and fall populations, both in terms in beds and faculty and staff effort. We have several hundred fewer students in the spring than in the fall, so this is a way of rebalancing that.”

The program has enormous benefits for students, according Glaser.

“It can help us provide a richer experience for those students who want to participate in it, and it does it in a very Tufts way, in a way that makes all the things about Tufts distinctive,” Glaser said.

McAndrew agreed that the program has practical benefits but emphasized its educational value.

“[Civic Semester] addresses the pragmatic concern … about second semester beds in a way that is consistent with Tufts values and that advances our mission at Tisch College,” she said in an email to the Daily. 

Solomont said that the program was inspired by the belief that civic service should be a universal rite of passage for students.

“[The program will] give incoming students a transformational learning experience doing serious community service work living in a new community,” Solomont said. “The reason people would do this is because … they see this opportunity of challenging themselves and learning more about the world and getting themselves ready for college in a unique way.”

McAndrew echoed this sentiment.

“Tufts believes that having this sort of immersive, civically-engaged experience at the start of your Tufts career is a foundation that is very consistent with Tufts’ values,” she said. “At Tisch College, we think that that will prepare students not only for their academic experience on this campus but for a robust civic life.”

Discussions about the program began in the summer of 2018, according to Solomont, and Glaser and Solomont were the two original proponents of the program. Both Glaser and Solomont made it clear, however, that many different parts of the university were crucial in allowing the program to come together so quickly.

“[The program] is a testament to Admissions, Residential Life, the Dean of Student [Affairs] Office, Financial Aid, Tisch College, Dean [of Undergraduate Studies Carmen] Lowe, and faculty and committees that have embraced the idea. When we’re all working together, good things can happen,” Glaser said.

Solomont echoed this sentiment, saying that the project was between Tisch College and the School of Arts and Sciences, but that they worked with Financial Aid, Student Life, the dining staff, Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon, and most importantly, Admissions.

“You can’t do something like this by yourself,” Solomont said.

According to Solomont, the civic semester is similar in many ways to the Tufts 1+4 Bridge Year Service Learning Program in that both programs offer students an opportunity to engage in meaningful service work while immersing themselves in a new community. However, the two programs have notable differences.

The 1+4 program is a full year, whereas the Civic Semester is only one semester long. Furthermore, students who participate in the Civic Semester will be fully matriculated Tufts students, whereas students who participate in 1+4 are not. Full financial aid applies to the Civic Semester program, but the 1+4 program is funded through philanthropic donations for students on financial aid.

Glaser also said that students who do a Civic Semester will be making progress toward their degree and will be on track to graduate in four years, whereas students who participate in 1+4 do not make progress toward their degree during their time abroad and instead expand their college experience to five years.

McAndrew, Solomont, Glaser, Crowe-Rothstein and Ryan all acknowledged the concern of integrating students who do the Civic Semester back into campus life in the spring but said that the university is making concrete plans to ensure a smooth transition.

“We have been thinking about this challenge since planning for the program began, and are working to make sure students have as much support and information as they need,” Crowe-Rothstein said. “We are working with A&S on the most effective ways to ensure that students are successfully reintegrated when they return to campus, including another orientation in January and support during the spring semester.” 

Furthermore, students will be housed together on campus once they return from the civic semester, Crowe-Rothstein said.

“They will live together after they return so that they can take advantage of the bonds they created throughout the program as they adjust to campus life,” Crowe-Rothstein said.


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